NBA Power Rankings!

With three weeks to go until training camps open, The Committee (of One) is back with its first-ever Substacked pulse-take of the league from 1 to 30

Labor Day is more than just a holiday in the NBA.

When the league is operating on its usual calendar, as it is again after two pandemic-altered seasons, Labor Day Monday represents an important pivot point, since this is the week when many players return to their local markets to get a jump on fast-approaching training camps. (Example: Here’s video of Kristaps Porzingis landing back in Dallas from his native Latvia.)

With most of the NBA's offseason business complete, we had even more reason to divert from the usual Tuesday newsletter extravaganza and unveil our first-ever Substacked edition of NBA Power Rankings from your trusty Committee (of One).

Deliberations continue at Stein Line HQ about how frequently we will publish rankings when the regular season begins — monthly as opposed to weekly is the way we're leaning — but the time was clearly now to park for a couple nights down in ye olde rankings dungeon to assemble a 1-to-30 ladder. (Reminder: These are not straight-up predictions for how the 2021-22 standings will unfold; how a team fared with its summer business and its overall health are also among the myriad factors considered for this first batch in addition to that team’s big-picture outlook.)

I hope to see lots of you commenting on the rankings and I will be responding to some of you directly there. Thanks again for following me to Substack, reading this newsletter and sharing in my journalistic endeavors like you do.

The Stein Line is a reader-supported newsletter, with both free and paid subscriptions available, and those who opt for the paid edition are taking an active role in the reporting by providing vital assistance to bolster my independent coverage of the league. Feel free to forward this post to family and friends interested in the NBA and please consider becoming a paid subscriber to have full access to all of my posts. Posts like this will be subscriber-only in the future to due to the resources required to produce distinctive and proprietary NBA reporting.

1️⃣  Milwaukee Bucks

The Committee (of One) made only occasional cameos after the 2016-17 season while at The New York Times, but our rules, standards and traditions haven’t changed. That means Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Bucks, as the league's reigning champions, start in the top slot no matter how dangerous Brooklyn looks. Milwaukee can also rightfully claim that it has a deeper roster than the squad that finally broke through to win it all, on top of the obvious confidence boost, after using the flexibility gained from P.J. Tucker's departure to add George Hill, Grayson Allen and Rodney Hood.

2️⃣ Brooklyn Nets

The Nets have responded to their crushing second-round loss to Milwaukee in a Game 7 at home by getting deeper through the additions of Patty Mills, Paul Millsap and a back-to-try-again LaMarcus Aldridge. Based on the premise that the starry trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving HAS to be healthier in its second season together, every sports book in Las Vegas likes Brooklyn better than the Bucks and will take immediate issue with our order. We get it … but the Nets still have to prove it.

3️⃣ Los Angeles Lakers

I'm as skeptical as anyone about the fit of Russell Westbrook in the Lakers' new Big Three … as well as the potential spacing issues that stem from adding the likes of Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and DeAndre Jordan on top of Westbrook and the pressure all of this heaps on coach Frank Vogel. But let's be clear here: The Anthony Davis slander in circulation is over the top and ill-advised. If AD bounces back well — and he should at 28 — this is your Western Conference favorite.

4️⃣ Phoenix Suns

The Suns lost four consecutive games after making a Cinderella trip to the NBA Finals and taking a 2-0 series lead over the Bucks — which has caused many of us to go right back to treating Phoenix's success last season as a desert mirage. That's likely a mistake after the Suns managed to bring back Chris Paul and Cameron Payne on team-friendly contracts … and when they expect Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges to keep improving … and when the Clippers (Kawhi Leonard) and Nuggets (Jamal Murray) have been weakened by major injury losses.

5️⃣ Miami Heat

No team in the NBA is better at figuring out the later when making win-now moves than the Heat, so they won't be sweating too much in the short term about the long-term dollars committed to Jimmy Butler (32 next week) and marquee newcomer Kyle Lowry (35). The deeper concern is the very real possibility that the Heat, even after adding Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris and re-signing Victor Oladipo in a headline-grabbing retooling of the roster, still don’t have enough to break into the Brooklyn/Milwaukee tier atop the East.

6️⃣ Atlanta Hawks

Locking in new long-term deals with last season's key figures — Trae Young, John Collins and coach Nate McMillan — and making minor moves around the edges (adding Gorgui Dieng and Delon Wright) were enough to convince The Committee that the Hawks will make another run at top-four status in the East. The real question is whether the higher expectations and increased pressure they'll face now, after a trip to the conference finals and the big contracts management handed out to reward that showing, have an adverse effect.

7️⃣ Utah Jazz

The Jazz are right where Milwaukee was last December and were dropped out of our top five as a result: For all of Utah's regular-season success and the various individual honors won by Jazz players, no one outside of Salt Lake City is going to take notice of anything these guys do unless/until it happens in the playoffs. Maybe the additions of Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall and Hassan Whiteside can get the Jazz closer, but the onus on leading the way to a breakthrough realistically falls more than ever on Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.

8️⃣ Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets know they will have to play much of the regular season without Jamal Murray after Murray sustained a torn ACL in his left knee in April. What we don't know yet but have to file away as a possibility: Denver could emerge as a lower seed no one in the West wants to see if Murray can make it back by February or March and play himself into some semblance of his Walt Disney World bubble form in time for the 2022 playoffs. The Nuggets are this low only because of Murray’s status.

9️⃣ LA Clippers

The Clippers, like the Nuggets, have real playoff sleeper potential if Kawhi Leonard can return from his partial ACL tear for the 2022 playoffs. Of course, given that Leonard's injury was two months later than Murray's and knowing his conservative history when it comes to returning from injury, do the Clippers even dare to dream that Leonard will be back before the 2022-23 season? The good news either way: Trading for Eric Bledsoe, re-signing Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson and signing Justise Winslow adds up to a strong summer of roster fortification that should keep the Clippers in the West's top eight (and our top 10). 

🔟 Philadelphia 76ers

Last season was Philadelphia's first as the top seed entering the Eastern Conference playoffs since Allen Iverson and Larry Brown formed a partnership to lead the 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals. This season? You hesitate to proclaim with confidence that the Sixers will be a top-four seed in the East because we don't know yet how the Ben Simmons saga will be resolved. How long will the Sixers' search for a palatable Simmons trade drag into the season? What sort of return package will the Sixers ultimately score in a Simmons deal? It's going to be hard to get a read on these guys until we have those answers.

1️⃣1️⃣ New York Knicks

Repeating last season's No. 4 finish in the East will be difficult for the Knicks, given the increasingly competitive state of the conference, but we still have them as a lock playoff team. As opposed to leaning too heavily on Derrick Rose as a lead guard, New York found a way to bring Bronx legend Kemba Walker home (with the help of a rare buyout granted by Oklahoma City) after the first significant free-agent expenditure of Leon Rose's tenure secured the signing of Evan Fournier. The offense will be better with those two. 

1️⃣2️⃣ Golden State Warriors

The Warriors have been increasingly mentioned as a team that could mount a surprise run at a top-three seed in the West, helped along by the rival injury absences of Murray and Leonard. Yet even if James Wiseman has a strong second season, Golden State does not want to put too much pressure on Klay Thompson. Although Thompson is expected back at Stephen Curry's side from his own injury woes in December or January, he’ll need some time to work his way back to top form after two major health setbacks. 

1️⃣3️⃣ Dallas Mavericks

Dallas' hopes for a significant roster shuffle around Luka Dončić failed to materialize, but Dončić will return from his impressive Olympic exploits in Tokyo to a completely new coaching staff and front office in Big D. It's no accident that new Mavericks coach Jason Kidd stayed even longer in Latvia huddling with Kristaps Porzingis than the team's delegation spent in Slovenia for the recent signing of Dončić's $200-plus million contract extension, since coaxing a bounce-back year out of Porzingis is likely the key variable in the Mavericks' quest to win a playoff series for the first time in more than a decade. 

1️⃣4️⃣ Boston Celtics

Brad Stevens' first offseason as the Celtics' new president of basketball operations couldn't have gone much better. Boston reacquired Al Horford and Enes Kanter, took a reasonably priced flier on trying to re-establish Josh Richardson and pounced on the chance to sign Dennis Schröder to the bargain deal of the offseason ($5.9 million for one year) when Schröder's market evaporated. The question is how much higher the Celtics, who had to settle for a No. 7 seed last season with Stevens on the bench, can realistically climb in a deeper-than-usual East.

1️⃣5️⃣ Chicago Bulls

The Committee freely concedes that we're being somewhat lenient here in our evaluation of the Bulls given all the uncertainty about how Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan will mesh offensively. Our reasoning: There will be plenty of time to second-guess the Bulls for what appears to be a serious overpay on DeRozan and very justified concerns about Chicago's defense. The Bulls' years-long unwillingness to make moves was a disappointment for as long as we can remember, so the idea (for now) is to celebrate the gumption they showed to partake in a splashy summer so soon after the March acquisition of Nikola Vučević.

1️⃣6️⃣ Memphis Grizzlies

Things you can bank on with the Grizzlies: Ja Morant will continue to inch toward All-Star status and Taylor Jenkins will keep this team in the playoff hunt no matter how low some of the other committees out there project Morant and Co. to finish. Much harder to predict is what happens next with Jaren Jackson Jr. in Memphis. JJJ came back from a lengthy injury absence to play in the Grizzlies' final 11 games last season; now they need him to get closer to Morant's level (and stay there).

1️⃣7️⃣ Indiana Pacers

Bringing back Rick Carlisle for his third stint in Indy — his second as a head coach and his first as a championship coach — was the Pacers' lone notable move since a disappointing loss to Washington in a winner-take-all game to secure the East's final playoff berth. T.J. Warren is coming back, too, after a foot injury limited Warren to four games last season, but Carlisle has more to prove than you think after failing to win a single playoff series since the Mavericks' title run in 2011 and relationships that crumbled with both Dončić and Porzingis in Dallas.

1️⃣8️⃣ Portland Trail Blazers

The tension in Portland appears to have been defused, at least for the moment, by Damian Lillard's focus on the recent release of his fourth rap album and his subsequent wedding. Training camp, though, is only three weeks away, when it will surely hit Lillard that Portland's offseason remodeling peaked with the acquisition defensive ace Larry Nance Jr., whose unquestioned versatility can help only so much. Of the league's five new first-time head coaches, Chauncey Billups faces more instant pressure than any of them.

1️⃣9️⃣ Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte's status as League Pass darlings only figures to be enhanced by the arrival of rookie center Kai Jones as another passing target for reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball. The priority for the Hornets, mind you, is making the playoffs, especially after the 27-point pounding they absorbed from Indiana in the East's first play-in game last season. After considerable talk about Charlotte's determination to upgrade at center and potential runs at the likes of Richaun Holmes (in free agency) and Myles Turner (via trade), Jones and Mason Plumlee are the newcomers at the position.

2️⃣0️⃣ Toronto Raptors

I asked a Raptors fan during a recent Spotify Greenroom session that I hosted if he could name a more popular Raptor than incoming rookie Scottie Barnes. Can't say that I agree with the fan's assessment that Barnes has already moved to No. 1 in the wake of Kyle Lowry's departure to Miami — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are all still there as holdovers from Toronto's 2019 title team — but his answer made me believe that those who follow Canada's team closest are ready to embrace the post-Lowry era. Hopefully that means 41 Raptors home games in Toronto back where they belong. 

2️⃣1️⃣  Washington Wizards

Finding trades for John Wall and Russell Westbrook in consecutive offseasons, when both carried an annual salary in excess of $40 million, was no small achievement for the Wizards, who are reveling in their newfound financial flexibility as well as the arrival of a solid quartet: Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell. There are still hard days ahead, though, with Bradley Beal entering what is potentially the final year of his contract and a long line of interested teams determined to lure Beal out of the nation's capital as long as his future with the Wiz remains unresolved. 

2️⃣2️⃣ Sacramento Kings

If Sacramento misses the postseason for a 16th successive season, as expected, it will have sole possession of the longest playoff drought in league history. It’s a slice of ignominy that the Kings currently share with the Clippers, whose 15 consecutive playoff misses began with the club’s last two seasons in Buffalo (and tiny me as a Braves diehard) in the 1970s. The last two drafts appear to have worked out fantastically for the long-suffering Kings, with Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell falling to them back-to-back, but no one in Sactown can really let loose and celebrate until that playoff hex is halted.

2️⃣3️⃣ New Orleans Pelicans

The good news for under-the-microscope Pelicans GM David Griffin: Willie Green, New Orleans’ second choice to replace Stan Van Gundy as coach after negotiations with Jacque Vaughn unraveled, has connected with big personalities wherever he has been as a player or as an assistant coach. So we’re betting on Green to forge a strong working relationship with Zion Williamson. The bad news: The coach/star relationship can impact only so much when New Orleans' roster around Williamson continues to look ill-fitting. Zion is very much at risk for a third successive non-playoff season in the pros. 

2️⃣4️⃣ San Antonio Spurs

After seemingly decades without change in the Alamo City, we're seeing more frequent turnover in the latter stages of Gregg Popovich's storied coaching career. LaMarcus Aldridge was bought out last season and DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills — who ranked as the last on-court link to the Timmy Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili triumvirate and the 2014 title team — all found new homes in August. How much longer Pop stays on, just 26 wins away from the league’s all-time record, will be a louder-than-ever question in South Texas.

2️⃣5️⃣ Minnesota Timberwolves

One of the NBA's eternal challenges is properly processing second-half results and statistics for teams and players that produce at a higher level after early elimination from the postseason race. While the Wolves went a (relatively) promising 16-20 after the All-Star break under new coach Chris Finch and watched Anthony Edwards uncork an impressive 11th-hour bid to swipe ROY honors from LaMelo Ball, it's only now — when the new season starts and Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and Edwards reconvene in good health on Day 1 — that we'll get a read on how meaningful that second-half stuff really was. 

2️⃣6️⃣ Houston Rockets

The Rockets have to be feeling as good as you can after a 17-55 season that brought a halt to the league's previous longest run of consecutive playoff appearances (eight) … which is also why we have them higher in this first rankings batch than a few teams bound to finish with better records. Houston appears to have been proven right for choosing to pass on Ben Simmons as the primary trade haul for James Harden and then scored a massive amount of lottery fortune by hanging onto its top pick and ultimately selecting Jalen Green at No. 2 overall. Green heads an array of promising youngsters (Alperen Şengün, Josh Christopher, Usman Garuba, Kevin Porter Jr. and Kenyon Martin Jr.) who, if nothing else, make the rebuilding Rockets rather watchable.

2️⃣7️⃣ Detroit Pistons

An underrated feature of the more-compelling-than-usual Eastern Conference expected to play out this season is the way that even teams with little playoff hope in the 11-to-15 range should still provide reasons to tune in. Detroit is a prime example of that sort of team after the addition of the ballyhooed Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 overall pick to an interesting cadre of holdover Pistons on the rise: Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes and, of course, Jerami Grant. 

2️⃣8️⃣ Cleveland Cavaliers

The Committee liked the Cavaliers' recent acquisition of Lauri Markkanen, even after the Cavs drafted Evan Mobley and re-signed Jarrett Allen, because they added Markkanen on a team-friendly contract that will be easy to trade if needed. This is no small thing when league sources say that Cleveland continues to keep its hat in the ring to try to pry Ben Simmons from the Sixers. Making a deal just to add a theoretical trade asset didn't exactly work with the acquisition of Andre Drummond, since Cleveland was unable to find a subsequent deal to move Drummond on, but its options on Markkanen — keep and develop him or move him later — figure to be more favorable. If only that were the case when it comes to the Cavaliers' Kevin Love conundrum … or the Darius Garland/Collin Sexton backcourt overload.

2️⃣9️⃣ Orlando Magic

The Magic's Jamahl Mosley joins Portland's Billups, Boston's Ime Udoka, New Orleans' Green and Washington's Wes Unseld Jr. on the league's list of first-time head coaches. Of those five, no coach's to-do list is as development-focused as Mosley's, who will be tasked with working former upper-crust draft picks Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz back in from long-term injuries and managing the rookie seasons of two top-eight picks: Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner.

3️⃣0️⃣ Oklahoma City Thunder

Roughly 25 teams in the league, including 13 of the 15 in the West, will open training camp on Sept. 28 will reasonable playoff aspirations. The Thunder, meanwhile, continue to operate in a league of their own, hoarding draft picks like no team we've ever seen and waiting patiently for the opportunity to turn those picks (presumably via trade someday) into another star to flank franchise cornerstone Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. At last check, Oklahoma City is projected to have 19 first-round picks and 15 second-rounders under its control through the 2028 draft.