Power Rankings, Week 1: Lakers, Bucks and Nuggets start season on top
See where all 30 teams rank before the regular season begins on Dec. 22.
It’s been only 10 weeks since the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2019-20 NBA championship. But the 2020-21 season is already here. Protocols are in place, precautions will be taken, and a vaccine is on the way, but we’re doing this without a bubble. Cross your fingers.
If there are no hiccups, this will be a fascinating season, even if one team is seen as a strong favorite. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are back. Zion Williamson is healthy. Giannis Antetokounmpo is committed to Milwaukee. Luka Doncic is the next big thing. The Miami Heat are looking to build on a bubble run, the Denver Nuggets are ridiculously fun to watch (and also very good), and the LA Clippers have reputations to salvage. The Lakers still have LeBron bleeping James and Anthony bleeping Davis.
We got a little taste of things to come in an abbreviated preseason. Those results and stats get thrown out on Tuesday, but not everything from the preseason should be dismissed. Within the numbers and film are some hints at what’s to come over the next seven months. When Duncan Robinson, having played 161 minutes as a rookie, started the Heat’s first preseason game last year and immediately launched a 3-pointer on his first touch, we knew that something was up.
The real stuff starts on Tuesday with one heck of a double-header on TNT: Warriors-Nets at 7 p.m. ET and Clippers-Lakers at 10 ET. Three days later, we have a monster, five-game Christmas slate on ABC and ESPN.
All those marquee games will go a long way in shaping next week’s Power Rankings. Before we get started for real, the champs are at the top, followed by Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, who look as ready for the season to start as any team in the league.
Plus-Minus Players of the Preseason
- Right Way: Ja Morant (MEM) was a plus-79 in four preseason games.
- Wrong Way: Cody Martin (CHA) was a minus-59 in four preseason games.
Teams of the Preseason
- Make It Last Forever: Brooklyn (2-0) — Kevin Durant. In a game that counts. Against Stephen Curry and the Warriors. Tuesday. 7 p.m. ET. TNT.
- Something Just Ain’t Right: Boston (0-2) — Maybe it was just gamesmanship against a pair of division rivals. Maybe it was the sage.
Movement in the Rankings
- High jumps of the preseason: Denver (+2), Philadelphia (+2), Toronto (+2)
- Free falls of the preseason: Houston (-3), Portland (-3)
Week 1 Team to Watch
- LA Clippers — Is this a “championship-or-bust year” for the Clips? Maybe not with Paul George signed for another four years. Still, the Clips have expectations and their schedule begins with a fascinating trio of games. They’ll be there on Tuesday as the Lakers get their rings. On Christmas, they’re in Denver to face the team that ended their season. And then they return to Staples Center to host Luka Doncic and the Mavs on Sunday afternoon.
Previous Power Rankings
- Offseason: Bucks atop the East | Lakers lead the West
- This time last year: Bucks make statement; Heat enter Top 5 — The season was nine weeks old and teams had played between 27 and 33 games. The Bucks beat the Lakers behind five 3s from Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Thunder won two straight games that they trailed by 26 and 24 points. The Raptors topped that, becoming the first team in almost 10 years to win a regular season game (against Dallas) it trailed by 30. LeBron James dropped a dime behind his head, Donovan Mitchell threw one down on Nikola Vucevic, and Kevin Love met Ja Morant.
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 100.8 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 110.1 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: 1
2019-20 record: 52-19
Pace: 101.2 (11) OffRtg: 111.7 (11) DefRtg: 106.1 (3) NetRtg: +5.6 (5)
Maybe we’ll look back at it as a fun thing that happened, and maybe we’ll look back at it as the start of something important. Time will tell, but Talen Horton-Tucker (the 46th pick in last year’s Draft who just turned 20 last month) balled out in the preseason, averaging 20.5 points on an effective field goal percentage of 61%. He looked comfortable taking a step-back 3-pointer, finished through contact, and dropped some nifty dimes (one, two, three) in the pick-and-roll.
THT seemingly gives coach Frank Vogel 11 guys who need to play, which certainly isn’t a bad thing with a condensed schedule after the shortest offseason ever. But it will be interesting to see how Vogel manages his rotation when everybody’s available. We knew Dennis Schroder would give the Lakers a new (off-the-dribble) look, but seeing Marc Gasol pass and defend with this team is a reminder that he’s totally different than the centers the Lakers had last season.
The other three: Brandon Ingram, D'Angelo Russell (2x) and Kobe Bryant. pic.twitter.com/Y89Tam8eew
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) December 14, 2020
The Lakers are playing 13 of their first 14 games within the Western Conference, starting the season with a four-game homestand featuring marquee matchups on opening night and Christmas Day.
Week 1: vs. LAC, vs. DAL, vs. MIN
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 56-17
Pace: 105.5 (1) OffRtg: 111.9 (8) DefRtg: 102.5 (1) NetRtg: +9.4 (1)
Giannis Antetokounmpo put pen to paper on an extension that has him under contract for at least the next five years. Now, the Bucks can spend the next five months preparing for playoff basketball. That quest starts with an opponent (the Celtics) that gave their defense some trouble last season, but the guy (Kemba Walker) who averaged 29.3 points in three games against the Bucks won’t be playing. That’s OK, because they’ll face a somewhat reasonable facsimile (Stephen Curry) two days later. Merry Christmas, Jrue Holiday.
We did see some Holiday-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll in the preseason and the Bucks’ ability to get the Kia MVP catches near the basket on key possessions will be something to watch with the offense. Even with a new point guard, Antetokounmpo had an off-the-charts usage rate (40.5%) in his 52 preseason minutes (in which the Bucks were outscored by 26 points). Donte DiVincenzo’s development as a secondary playmaker (now in the starting lineup) also looms large.
Week 1: @ BOS, vs. GSW, @ NYK
Last Week: 3
2019-20 record: 46-27
Pace: 97.6 (29) OffRtg: 112.6 (5) DefRtg: 110.4 (16) NetRtg: +2.2 (11)
On Wednesday, Will Barton played his first game in more than nine months. On Friday, he was in the starting lineup, pushing Michael Porter Jr. back to the bench. Porter was seemingly unaffected, scoring 20 points in 22 minutes as the Nuggets blew out the Blazers for a second straight time. Less than three months removed from a riveting run to the conference finals, they’ve seemingly hit the ground running and with, arguably, the league’s best offensive cohesion.
Nikola Jokic shot 71% in the preseason, with just five turnovers to go with his 19 assists. Heck, the entire rotation was dropping dimes. The Lakers probably got better, but if the Nuggets aren’t on the champs’ tier, they’re not too far below. And their two stars are only 25 and 23 years old.
If there’s any team that can still have a real home-court advantage with no fans, it’s the one that plays at the highest altitude. The Nuggets will play six of their first eight games at the newly renamed Ball Arena.
Week 1: vs. SAC, vs. LAC
Last Week: 2 ↓
2019-20 record: 49-23
Pace: 102.2 (8) OffRtg: 113.3 (2) DefRtg: 106.9 (5) NetRtg: +6.3 (2)
Serge Ibaka should be a great fit, and he’s a strong finisher at the rim (72% in the restricted area over the last four years). Ivica Zubac is a really good, young center (still only 23 years old) who has a little more touch than Montrezl Harrell away from the basket. But Harrell took a huge volume of layups and dunks (the second most restricted-area buckets in the league) with him to the other locker room at Staples Center, and the Clippers might have a tough time replacing that relentless rim attack. Both Kawhi Leonard (from 27% in 2018-19 to 20%) and Paul George (from 23% in ’18-19 to 18%) saw big drops in the percentage of their shots that came in the restricted area last season. Finding ways to consistently get to the rim will be a test for the Clippers, who ranked 28th (ahead of only the Pistons and Spurs) in the percentage of their shots (20%) that came in the restricted area in the preseason.
Of course, even if they’re dunking all over teams, given the way last season went, the Clippers are still going to be the Clippers until (or unless) they reach The Finals. And, though we’d all love to get there ASAP, there’s no fast-forwarding to June and July. Until then, we can only take measure of their consistency and their performances against the best teams in the league. And games against the Lakers, Nuggets and Mavs is a darn good way to get started.
Week 1: @ LAL, @ DEN, vs. DAL
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 44-29
Pace: 98.7 (27) OffRtg: 111.9 (7) DefRtg: 109.3 (12) NetRtg: +2.7 (8)
Jimmy Butler is no longer hunched over the courtside signage in the bubble, but he did get the preseason off. He should be ready to go on Wednesday and Goran Dragic, who came off the bench against Toronto on Friday, is seemingly recovered from the foot injury he suffered in The Finals.
Maurice Harkless (the Jae Crowder replacement) started both of the Heat’s games at the four and, though he shot just 1-for-8 from 3-point range, made a quick impression on defense with a pretty ridiculous block on Brandon Ingram. It’s on that end of the floor where there’s room for improvement. The Heat have ranked outside the top 10 defensively in just seven of the 25 seasons since Pat Riley left New York for Miami, but last season was one of the seven, as they saw a big jump in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (65.8%, 25th) from the season prior (58.7%, second). Rim protection was obviously an issue as the Lakers scored more than 119 points per 100 possessions in their four wins in The Finals.
They’ll face a couple of challenges in that regard as they play the Pelicans on Christmas and then have a two-game series with the Bucks next week. It’s time to ball, y’all.
Week 1: @ ORL, vs. NOP
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 35-37
Pace: 101.7 (10) OffRtg: 108.7 (22) DefRtg: 109.2 (10) NetRtg: -0.5 (15)
Same question from the offseason rankings: How well with the Nets defend? Kevin Durant was erasing shots in the preseason, but Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan are rather immobile on that end of the floor. So ball-handlers who can shoot off the dribble (hello, Stephen Curry) and bigs who shoot off the catch could be a problem. And it will be absolutely fascinating to see who new coach Steve Nash turns to when he needs a stop in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
But this team is going to score lots of points, even if its shot profile goes from nerdy (second in the percentage of its shots that come from the restricted area or 3-point range% last season) to old school (25th in the preseason). We only saw a few Irving-Durant actions (examples here and here) in their two preseason games, but Durant attacking weak-side close-outs is unfair, a more aggressive Joe Harris is a big deal, and it must be nice to have Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert (looking like the sixth man) as third and fourth options.
The depth goes beyond just having four off-the-dribble bucket-getters. Bruce Brown was a nice offseason acquisition (in exchange for a second round pick), but didn’t crack the 11-man, preseason rotation.
Week 1: vs. GSW, @ BOS, @ CHA
Last Week: 4 ↓
2019-20 record: 44-28
Pace: 99.1 (24) OffRtg: 111.8 (9) DefRtg: 109.3 (13) NetRtg: +2.5 (9)
The Jazz have a new owner, and Ryan Smith seems like a committed man. Like, in the two months since he reached an agreement to purchase the team, he’s committed $400 million to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. The Jazz duo have played *6,119 minutes together over the last three seasons and they’re going to be playing a lot more together over the next five.
* Only three combinations have played more minutes together (including postseason) over the last three seasons: James Harden and P.J. Tucker (7,241), Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (6,489), and Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray (6,453).
The Jazz have some questions on the back end of their rotation, but this team is more than solid, with obvious potential to rank in the top seven-ish on both ends of the floor. When they fell off defensively last season, it was more in the minutes that Gobert was off the floor (110.1 points allowed per 100 possessions vs. 104.7 in 2018-19) than in the minutes when he was on the floor (106.6 vs. 103.6 in ’18-19). So, while they’ll continue to play four out offensively with their starting lineup, Derrick Favors on the second unit can make a difference on the other end.
Week 1: @ POR, vs. MIN
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 48-24
Pace: 99.9 (17) OffRtg: 112.8 (4) DefRtg: 106.5 (4) NetRtg: +6.3 (3)
Over his first four years in the league, Jaylen Brown has been everything (defender, finisher, shooter off the catch) but a real playmaker. Last season, his assist rate of 9.6 per 100 possessions ranked 99th among 115 players with a usage rate of 20% or higher. But with Gordon Hayward gone and Kemba Walker out to start the season, there’s a need for Brown to be more of a creator.
The Celtics got waxed by Brooklyn in the preseason finale, but midway through the second quarter, they ran an ATO for Brown to come off a double-screen toward the middle of the floor. He got into the paint, engaged DeAndre Jordan, and lofted a lob to Robert Williams. They ran the same action the next time down the floor and, when Kyrie Irving switched the first screen and jumped to the other side of the second one, Brown read the play, hit the brakes, and pulled up from 3. A few possessions later, Brown dropped a nifty dime to Williams after attacking a close-out.
With Walker out, the Celtics’ inexperienced depth will get thrown straight into the fire as they begin the season with four games against East playoff teams. Javonte Green (who played six playoff minutes last season) started the two preseason games and rookie Payton Pritchard got some run. But the best guess for the fifth guy on the floor down the stretch of a close game (until Walker returns) could be Grant Williams.
Week 1: vs. MIL, vs. BKN, @ IND
Last Week: 6 ↓
2019-20 record: 43-32
Pace: 99.8 (18) OffRtg: 115.9 (1) DefRtg: 111.2 (18) NetRtg: +4.8 (6)
Luka Doncic and new backcourtmate Josh Richardson were tied to each other through the Mavs’ three preseason games, checking out and in together and playing the same 72 minutes and 54 seconds. And it only took those 72 minutes and 54 seconds for Doncic to turn Richardson (11-for-15 from 3-point range in the preseason) into the best shooter in the league. Doncic assisted on just four of Richardson’s 11 3-pointers, but generated a few more with his pick-and-roll playmaking and one of those four assists was a straight dart right to the shooting pocket in the weak-side corner.
The Mavs have the goods to finish in the top four in the Western Conference this season. They had the conference’s third best point differential last season and just couldn’t finish close games. They’ll be tested early, though, playing six of their first eight games against the Suns, Lakers, Clippers, Heat, Rockets and Nuggets. It’s not yet clear if Kristaps Porzingis (recovering from meniscus surgery) will be available by the end of that stretch.
Week 1: @ PHX, @ LAL, @ LAC
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 53-19
Pace: 101.2 (12) OffRtg: 110.8 (13) DefRtg: 104.7 (2) NetRtg: +6.4 (4)
There were two major elements in the Raptors’ second-ranked defense last season. The first was disruptiveness, and that was there in full force in the preseason. The Raps’ 14.0 steals per game led the preseason and Fred VanVleet’s 4.6 steals per 36 minutes ranked second among 333 players who played at least 30 total minutes. He stripped Devonte’ Graham of the ball just 10 seconds into the first game.
The second major element was rim protection, and that was missing. Last season, Toronto had the fifth lowest percentage of opponent shots that came in the restricted area (30%). In the preseason, they had the second highest rate (35%). It was just three preseason games and their starting lineup played a total of 12:23 together, so there’s no need to panic. But the guy who led the league with 15.8 restricted-area points per game last season is coming to Tampa on Wednesday.
Week 1: vs. NOP, @ SAS
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 43-30
Pace: 99.6 (20) OffRtg: 110.7 (14) DefRtg: 108.4 (8) NetRtg: +2.3 (10)
It’s standard procedure in this space to monitor where Joel Embiid’s shots are coming from, even when those shots were taken in just 17 minutes of the preseason. And of his 14 shots against the Celtics on Tuesday (14 shots and six free throws in just 17 minutes is kind of wild in itself), only four came in the paint, with two of those four coming in transition. The Sixers were trying some stuff in the half-court offense, but it’s obviously a work in progress and that 4/14 is not good. You’d also like to see more than six 3-point attempts in 47 minutes from Seth Curry.
Of course, the better they are defensively (and Ben Simmons remains a monster on that end), the less the half-court offense matters. And it might not matter much in the first 15 days of the season, with the Sixers playing seven of their first eight games against the Wizards (x2), Knicks, Cavs, Magic and Hornets (x2).
Week 1: vs. WAS, @ NYK, @ CLE
Last Week: 5 ↓
2019-20 record: 35-39
Pace: 101.2 (13) OffRtg: 113.2 (3) DefRtg: 114.3 (27) NetRtg: -1.2 (18)
Harry Giles got his revenge on the Kings, racking up 37 points (on 14-for-24 shooting), 27 rebounds and five steals over two games. But other than that, the Blazers’ preseason wasn’t good. They trailed each their two games in Denver by more than 30 points, and neither was a starters-against-scrubs situation. Damian Lillard was a minus-22 in 30 minutes on Wednesday and (with Lillard out) CJ McCollum was a minus-21 in 30 minutes on Friday.
The good news is that the defensive numbers were decent (small sample size alert!) in Robert Covington’s 54 minutes on the floor and that the two teams that ranked worse defensively in the preseason were the Clippers and Bucks. The bad news is that, unlike the Clippers and Bucks, the Blazers don’t have a top-five defense from last season to revert to. Playing Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter together on the second unit is a flammable situation and the season begins with some flammable opponents. The Blazers’ first six games are against the Jazz, Rockets, Lakers, Clippers and Warriors (x2).
Week 1: vs. UTA, vs. HOU
Last Week: 8 ↓
2019-20 record: 34-39
Pace: 101.7 (9) OffRtg: 111.3 (12) DefRtg: 110.8 (17) NetRtg: +0.5 (14)
The Suns’ preseason, with all their sets, set-ups and variations, was confirmation that they will be one of the league’s most enjoyable teams to watch. Heck, just the standard, Chris Paul pick-and-roll game with Deandre Ayton rolling to the rim and more-than-capable floor spacers — Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder — on the perimeter, will provide plenty of eye candy.
Frontline depth is a clear issue, even if Dario Saric (who missed the entire preseason with a quad injury) is ready to go on Wednesday. Behind Ayton and Saric, the next two true bigs are rookie Jalen Smith (who didn’t look comfortable in the preseason) and fifth-year center Damian Jones, who’s coming off a rough season in Atlanta.
Related to the depth issue … The Suns have one stretch of five games in seven days in the first half of the season, and it begins with a weekend back-to-back in Sacramento. With the Suns having a roster spot open as of Monday morning, the most capable free agent big (maybe ‘ol friend Frank Kaminsky) might already have a ticket to Phoenix.
Week 1: vs. DAL, @ SAC, @ SAC
Last Week: 7 ↓
2019-20 record: 44-28
Pace: 104.0 (2) OffRtg: 112.5 (6) DefRtg: 109.8 (15) NetRtg: +2.7 (7)
John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins looked pretty good in their returns from 23 and 18 months off, respectively. The college teammates revived their pick-and-roll game to get Wall going downhill (Example 1, Example 2) in Chicago. Eric Gordon (effective field goal percentage of 65%) looked really good after struggling last season. Christian Wood scored 27 points in just 24 preseason minutes. The Rockets’ new offense under coach Stephen Silas featured more movement, more screens for James Harden, and some creative sets to keep defenses on their toes.
Alas, it seems that we’re all just waiting for Harden to be traded and wondering what the Rockets will look like after that. In the meantime, it’s hard to know how hard and cohesively they’ll play given the cloud that’s hanging over them. The offense had some real pop in the preseason, and maybe that carries over to the games that count. But how much will they care on the other end of the floor? They face two of last season’s top five offenses (those of the Blazers and Nuggets) in their first three games.
Week 1: vs. OKC, @ POR
Last Week: 9 ↓
2019-20 record: 15-50
Pace: 101.0 (15) OffRtg: 104.4 (30) DefRtg: 113.0 (26) NetRtg: -8.6 (30)
After a feel-out game against Denver, Stephen Curry scored 58 points in 57 total minutes over two games in Sacramento. Of his 13 3-pointers in the preseason, 11 were assisted, and that was without Draymond Green, whose 419 career assists on Curry 3-pointers are 218 more than any other player has. The transition, pull-up 3 is the first thing that opposing defenses need to account for, but the relentless and/or sudden off-ball movement will scare the bleep out of ’em even more.
Now we see how and how well Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. can take advantage of the attention paid to the two-time MVP. Wiggins has been solid on corner 3-pointers (41.5%) over the last three seasons, but Oubre has not (31.4%).
One of those two guys could also be tasked with defending Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo this week, because Green is dealing with a right foot injury. No. 2 pick James Wiseman, who also missed all of the preseason, should make his Warriors debut in Brooklyn on Tuesday.
Week 1: @ BKN, @ MIL, @ CHI
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 45-28
Pace: 99.4 (22) OffRtg: 109.5 (19) DefRtg: 107.5 (6) NetRtg: +1.9 (13)
The Pacers, under new coach Nate Bjorkgren, saw the league’s second biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range from last season (31.7%, 30th) to the preseason (45.7%, 10th). Malcolm Brogdon led the team with five preseason mid-range attempts, but his ratio of 3-point attempts to mid-range attempts (3.8 to 1) was still almost triple his ratio from last season (1.3 to 1). Domantas Sabonis, who took more than twice as many mid-range shots as 3-pointers last season, took just one shot from between the paint and the arc in 78 preseason minutes. It’s kind of amazing that players that went so long without thinking about where they were shooting from are suddenly, after just a few practices, very conscious of where they’re shooting from.
Just as interesting and important is that Bjorkgren is trying to get his new team to defend like his previous one (the Raptors), playing aggressive on the perimeter, pressuring the ball, and scrambling when it moves. Indy led the preseason in opponent turnover rate (ahead of the second-ranked Raps), but ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency. That kind of defense works well when you have the speed, ranginess and indefatigability of Pascal Siakam at power forward, but asking Sabonis and Myles Turner to play it together will be interesting, to say the least. Bjorkgren may need T.J. Warren (who missed all of the preseason, but should be available on Wednesday) to play most of his minutes at power forward to maximize the Pacers’ ability to scramble defensively.
Week 1: vs. NYK, @ CHI, vs. BOS
Last Week: 10 ↓
2019-20 record: 34-39
Pace: 103.3 (6) OffRtg: 108.7 (21) DefRtg: 109.7 (14) NetRtg: -1.0 (17)
Ja Morant is more than just a relentless attacker. That’s still what makes him most dangerous, but he’s quickly developed into a pretty sophisticated ball-handler and passer, both in and out of the pick-and-roll. The question is if the Grizzlies’ improved 3-point shooting in the preseason — De’Anthony Melton 9-for-18, Kyle Anderson 8-for-15 — was more signal or more noise. If it’s the former and those guys are legit threats (both certainly looked more confident with their strokes), the Grizzlies can achieve more (paint-vs.-outside) balance and take a real step forward offensively.
By last season’s numbers, the Grizz have the league’s easiest first-half schedule, with 17 of their first 21 games against teams that had losing records in 2019-20. That could ease the pain of starting the season without Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow. Jackson’s presence didn’t have much of an effect on the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers — overall or just in Morant’s minutes — last season.
Week 1: vs. SAS, vs. ATL
Last Week: 11 ↓
2019-20 record: 30-42
Pace: 103.9 (4) OffRtg: 110.5 (15) DefRtg: 111.8 (21) NetRtg: -1.3 (20)
New coach, new style of play? The Pelicans played just two games, but saw both the league’s biggest drop in pace and its biggest drop in assist percentage (AST/FGM) from last season to the preseason. Still, with Zion Williamson averaging 30.6 points per 36 minutes and taking 28 of his 35 shots in the restricted area, the Pelicans did have the preseason’s most efficient offense (for what that’s worth). And on the other end of the floor, they saw a notable drop in the percentage of their opponents’ shots that came in the restricted area.
It looks like coach Stan Van Gundy is going to stagger the minutes of Williamson and Brandon Ingram. In their first preseason game, Ingram subbed out midway through the first quarter and came back to run the second-unit offense. In their second game, it was Williamson who checked out early and played with the subs. The first option allows Ingram to do his thing a little more unabashedly, but the latter gives Williamson more minutes alongside JJ Redick, which may be preferable.
The Pelicans have a tough first-half schedule, and it begins with our second attempt at Opening Night Zion vs. the Raptors.
Week 1: @ TOR, @ MIA, vs. SAS
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 33-40
Pace: 99.0 (26) OffRtg: 107.9 (23) DefRtg: 109.2 (11) NetRtg: -1.3 (19)
Cole Anthony seems to have a spot in the Magic rotation, which is good for him and for all of us who watch League Pass and (with apologies to the flammable Terrence Ross) want to see a little more juice in the Orlando offense. LaMelo Ball had the highlight on Saturday night, Anthony outplayed the No. 3 pick, taking Ball into the paint for an and-one, hitting a game-winning floater with less than 15 seconds left, and finishing with 19 points.
There are 57 two-game series in the first-half schedule, and the first two are back-to-backs on Saturday and Sunday. One is Phoenix-Sacramento, while the other is between two teams — the Magic and Wizards — who seemed destined for the play-in scrum in the Eastern Conference. The Magic swept the season series last year, with the 120.3 points per 100 possessions they scored being their best mark against any East opponent.
Week 1: vs. MIA, @ WAS, @ WAS
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 25-47
Pace: 103.4 (5) OffRtg: 110.2 (16) DefRtg: 114.7 (29) NetRtg: -4.5 (25)
Wizards coach Scott Brooks absolutely needs to get funky with some Westbrook-Beal-Brown-Avdija-Bertans minutes, preferably in first quarters for the 7 p.m. ET League Pass crowd. But the starting frontline, assuming it’s Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, should also do a decent job of spacing the floor for Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. After taking *1.7 as many mid-range shots as 3-point attempts as a rookie, Hachimura seems to have extended his range. And Bryant is a center who can punish drop-coverage defenses. He attempted just 91 3-pointers last season, but shot 41% on those and led the Wizards with 14 attempts in the preseason.
* That was the fifth highest rate among 190 players with at least 200 total attempts from outside the paint. Westbrook (1.4) and Ish Smith (1.2) had the eighth and 11th highest rates, respectively.
Last season, with the addition of Westbrook, the Rockets ranked second in pace (104.0 possessions per 48 minutes), up from 98.4 (27th) the season before. Last season’s Wizards ranked fifth in pace (103.4 per 48), and in Westbrook’s 17 preseason minutes (small sample size alert!), they played at a pace of 119 possessions per 48.
The Wizards have two stretches of five games in seven days in the first half of the season, and the first one begins with their weekend back-to-back against the Magic.
Week 1: @ PHI, vs. ORL, vs. ORL
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 20-47
Pace: 103.3 (7) OffRtg: 107.0 (25) DefRtg: 114.4 (28) NetRtg: -7.4 (28)
It’s possible that the Hawks’ two highest-paid players — Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic — will both be coming off the bench. (Bogdanovic started two of their four preseason games.) And it kind of makes sense, given that the offense was solid when Trae Young was on the floor and dreadful when he wasn’t last season. Young play pick-and-roll with Clint Capela and, perhaps, some improved shooting from De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. And then Bogdanovic and Gallinari can feast against other reserves. In the preseason, the Hawks were actually much better offensively with the second unit on the floor without Young.
They’ll likely close games with all Young, Bogdanovic and Gallinari all on the floor. And Lloyd Pierce will have some interesting decisions in regard to the who’s the big (Capela or John Collins) and who’s the other perimeter player (Hunter, Reddish, Rajon Rondo or even Kevin Huerter) when he needs a bucket or a stop. The pieces are there and we got a taste of how some of them can be used — Gallinari as a high-post initiator, screen the screener with Bogdanovic — in the preseason.
Defense is another story, of course. The Hawks’ first nine games are all against teams that had losing records and ranked in the bottom 11 offensively last season, though two of those are against the Nets, who just might be better on that end of the floor this year.
Week 1: @ CHI, @ MEM
Last Week: 13 ↓
2019-20 record: 32-39
Pace: 101.1 (14) OffRtg: 111.7 (10) DefRtg: 112.6 (24) NetRtg: -0.9 (16)
In his 14 seasons in the league, LaMarcus Aldridge has never attempted half as many 3-pointers as mid-range shots. Prior to last season (2.2 to 1), his ratio of mid-range attempts to 3-point attempts was 18.3 to 1. But in the preseason, Aldridge launched 19 3s and just six shots from between the paint and the arc. With the departures of two of their most prolific deep threats (Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli), the Spurs, who didn’t shoot a lot of 3-pointers in the first place, kind of need their big man to step behind the line. But we’ll see if he keeps it up if the shots don’t start falling (he made only four of those 19 preseason attempts).
Like Aldridge, Derrick White started shooting 3-pointers more liberally in the second half of last season. And the 26-year-old guard (eligible for an extension by Monday night) averaged an efficient 18.9 points in the bubble. But both White (recovering from toe surgery) and Keldon Johnson (another bubble standout) will start the season on the shelf. That does provide an opportunity for Lonnie Walker IV, and Dejounte Murray guarding Ja Morant could still be a fun way to start the season.
Week 1: @ MEM, vs. TOR, @ NOP
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 22-43
Pace: 100.5 (16) OffRtg: 105.8 (29) DefRtg: 108.9 (9) NetRtg: -3.1 (22)
Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. combined to shoot 35%, with only 31% of their shots coming in the restricted area. But Markkanen’s best preseason game (22 points on 9-for-17 shooting) was his last and there were some intriguing 4-5 actions that got the bigs to the basket: An empty-corner pick-and-roll with Markkanen tossing a lob to Carter and a hand-off with Markkanen finishing a drive over Al Horford.
While the pressure is on the big man duo to find themselves, the Bulls’ next wave of talent is already here. Coby White is in the starting lineup and may have turned the shooting-passing dial a little bit in the passing direction. No. 4 pick Patrick Williams, meanwhile, seems pretty polished offensively, though maybe too eager to shoot mid-range jumpers off the dribble.
The Bulls’ game against Indiana on Saturday is the start of a pretty brutal, eight-games-in-12-days stretch that includes three back-to-backs and games on both coasts.
Week 1: vs. ATL, vs. IND, vs. GSW
Last Week: 12 ↓
2019-20 record: 19-45
Pace: 104.0 (3) OffRtg: 107.6 (24) DefRtg: 111.6 (20) NetRtg: -4.0 (24)
Anthony Edwards had one really impressive stop against Luka Doncic on Thursday, but there’s little indication that the Wolves’ defense is going to be any better than it was last season. And it may just be worse, given the lack of size and mobility at the four and five spots. Ja Morant had no issues slicing up the pick-and-roll defense as the Grizzlies outscored the Wolves, 116-72, in the paint over two preseason meetings. Jake Layman as the starting power forward just might be a problem and while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would have helped in that regard, he was waived on Saturday.
Jarrett Culver looks different, both in regard to his body (#Musclewatch) and his competence on offense (10-for-23 from the field and 10-for-10 at the line in the preseason). Managing the wing rotation will be an interesting challenge for Ryan Saunders, especially if he plays his two point guards — D’Angelo Russell and Ricky Rubio — together for 10-ish minutes per game. Edwards didn’t start in the preseason, but led the team in minutes.
Week 1: vs. DET, @ UTA, @ LAL
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 23-42
Pace: 96.2 (30) OffRtg: 105.9 (28) DefRtg: 112.8 (25) NetRtg: -7.0 (27)
The LaMelo Ball Experience is going to be something else, and the No. 3 pick may already be one of the most polarizing players in the league. The shooting — he was 7-for-34 (21%) from outside the restricted area in the preseason — needs a lot of work, but there will be dimes galore. Ball arguably had the three best assists of the preseason: three, two, and Oh My!
Ball’s first pass in a Hornets uniform was, appropriately and in the mold of his brother Lonzo, a 30-foot pass ahead after a rebound. And the Hornets saw the biggest jump in pace from last season (96.2 possessions per 48 minutes, 30th) to the preseason (108.1, eighth). If they can get some easy buckets in transition and Gordon Hayward (who missed the last two preseason games with a fracture in his right hand) can give them a boost in the half-court, they could be one of the league’s most improved teams on offense.
— NBA (@NBA) December 13, 2020
Week 1: @ CLE, vs. OKC, vs. BKN
Last Week: 14 ↓
2019-20 record: 31-41
Pace: 99.6 (19) OffRtg: 109.5 (18) DefRtg: 111.4 (19) NetRtg: -1.9 (21)
The Kings’ faster pace in the bubble carried over into the preseason, where we saw De’Aaron Fox pushing off made baskets and missed free throws. There was another instance where he grabbed a rebound and immediately passed ahead to Tyrese Haliburton (picked by the league’s GMs as the biggest steal in the Draft), with whom Fox played about 33 of his 105 preseason minutes. Alas, the offense was not good and featured a lot of *turnovers in those 33 minutes and, over their two games with the Warriors, the Kings got more than doubled up on fast break points (12-33). Sometimes, playing at a fast pace is better for the other team.
* Richaun Holmes might still be upset about Haliburton not getting him the ball in the post against Carmelo Anthony.
Marvin Bagley returned for and started the last two preseason games, and we saw flashes of why he was a No. 2 pick. A frontline of Harrison Barnes, Bagley and Holmes will be able to run with Fox, but could have some spacing issues in the half-court offense.
Week 1: @ DEN, vs. PHX, vs. PHX
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 21-45
Pace: 99.1 (25) OffRtg: 105.9 (27) DefRtg: 112.4 (23) NetRtg: -6.5 (26)
Last season, the Knicks were the only team that ranked in the bottom five in both 3-point percentage (27th) and the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range (29th). They were joined by the Sixers, but they remained in the bottom five in both (27th and 28th) in the preseason (even with a 15-for-29 performance in the finale). Coach Tom Thibodeau will not be turning this team into the Rockets.
But there’s reason for some optimism with the defense and with the kids. Obi Toppin was 1-for-11 from beyond the arc, but the No. 8 pick has got some skills. We saw the athleticism (and not just on dunks), some work in the post, some strong attacks off the dribble, and a willingness to share the ball, highlighted by one ridiculous no-look dime to Kevin Knox. Knox himself had an encouraging preseason and Immanuel Quickley (who was somehow a plus-62 in 62 preseason minutes) should probably be given every opportunity to show that he can run the offense in games that count.
The games that count do begin with a tough first few weeks.
Week 1: @ IND, vs. PHI, vs. MIL
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 19-46
Pace: 99.2 (23) OffRtg: 106.9 (26) DefRtg: 114.8 (30) NetRtg: -7.9 (29)
Coach J.B. Bickerstaff is going to try some things with the defense that’s ranked 29th, 30th and 30th in the last three seasons. The Cavs played the most zone in the preseason by a healthy margin after playing less than 10 total possessions of zone all of last season, according to Synergy play-type tracking. They still allowed their opponents to take 36% of their shots, the preseason’s highest opponent rate, in the restricted area. Andre Drummond should be a good rim protector, but he may be the most feast-or-famine defender in the league. So let’s call that defense a work in progress. The Cavs do play eight of their first nine games against teams that ranked in the bottom 12 offensively last season.
Rookie Isaac Okoro had his moments in the preseason and Darius Garland seems to be finishing stronger in the paint (this bucket through contact stood out), but the Cavs got blown out by the Knicks in the one game (the preseason finale) in which Garland and Collin Sexton played together. They were without Kevin Love (calf strain) and Larry Nance Jr. (concussion), who may or not be available against Charlotte on Wednesday. We did see some more Nance-Love-Drummond minutes in the preseason opener.
Week 1: vs. CHA, @ DET, vs. PHI
Last Week: 0 ↓
2019-20 record: 20-46
Pace: 97.9 (28) OffRtg: 108.8 (20) DefRtg: 112.3 (22) NetRtg: -3.5 (23)
Jerami Grant In A Bigger Role will be something to keep an eye on. He can throw these stats away come Wednesday, but he was throwing passes away in the preseason, racking up 12 (mostly careless) turnovers with just two assists and 29% shooting. Maybe Blake Griffin, who ranked 11th on the team in preseason usage rate (with 14 assists and just one turnover), will take more control of the offense when the games count.
Of course, Killian Hayes is going to start and have the ball in his hands too. He could eventually develop some nice chemistry with Griffin (we saw a little bit of a two-man game against the Knicks), especially if we see extended minutes with Griffin at the five and more shooting on the floor. Of course, other teams will probably be calling Troy Weaver all season about Svi Mykhailiuk, Professional Shooter and one of the only guys left from the roster Weaver inherited.
If you can have measuring stick games in the first week of the season, these first two — against the Wolves and Cavs — might be just that for the Pistons.
Week 1: @ MIN, vs. CLE
Last Week: 15 ↓
2019-20 record: 44-28
Pace: 99.4 (21) OffRtg: 110.1 (17) DefRtg: 108.1 (7) NetRtg: +2.1 (12)
It feels like this space will be reserved for Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon updates all season. We know what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can do (though there will be development to monitor), and we’ve seen Al Horford for the last 13 seasons. But Poku (a 7-foot guard?) and Maledon (who seems to see the floor really well) are new and intriguing pieces on a team for which wins and losses won’t matter. Luguentz Dort 2.0 could also be fun to watch (though his preseason usage rate was below that of Kenrich Williams).
The roster overhaul and coaching change have seemingly brought some changes in the way the Thunder play. They saw the league’s second biggest jump in pace from last season to the preseason (about six possessions per 48 minutes when you adjust for the league average) and its biggest jump in the percentage of their shots coming in the restricted area. It won’t quite be a playoff rematch in Houston on Wednesday, though we should get more Harden vs. Dort.
Week 1: @ HOU, @ CHA