Stephen A. Smith gets frustrated talking about how bad the Knicks franchise is at the moment. (2:03)
Time for another preseason tradition: our eighth annual League Pass Rankings. These are watchability scores derived from a formula etched into stone tablets unearthed during construction of Bill Simmons’ backyard swimming pool. We reward each team between one and 10 points in five categories:
Zeitgeist: Do normal people care about this team? If you bring them up at a party, will guests slink away like Homer Simpson into the hedge?
Highlight potential: Does this team have one player who can transform a ho-hum sequence into something transcendent in a blink?
Style: The 2013-14 Spurs would be a 10. James Harden dribbling 44 times before launching another step-back would receive something below a 10.
League Pass minutiae: Uniforms, courts, announcers.
Unintentional comedy: Blame Simmons. We have expanded the category to include variables — like Markelle Fultz‘s jump shot — more appropriately classified as “curiosities.”
Reminder: These are not power rankings.
30. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (14 POINTS)
Does Bradley Beal know the name of every teammate? Will he begin weeping during the run of play at some point?
Beal is too good, and too loyal, to act out whatever frustrations he might harbor. If anything, the opposite will happen: He will again lead the league in minutes toiling for a team that seems to believe everything will be fine once John Wall returns from (/pauses to check notes) knee surgery and a torn Achilles. Beal busting it for 35 minutes on this team is almost torture to watch — Beal as the Leonardo DiCaprio character in “The Revenant.”
On the flip side, ranking 30th carries some strange reverse-jinx effect. The Pacers landed here ahead of their feel-good 2017-18 season. Sacramento brought up the rear a year ago.
Troy Brown has a high-IQ slash-and-cut game. Thomas Bryant gets a chance to prove himself a starter. He was one of the league’s most prolific dunkers once Washington stole him, and he is dying — almost bouncing on his feet as he awaits a pass, like an excited toddler — to launch jumpers. Insiders want to see if Washington reached picking Rui Hachimura No. 9. Any Isaiah Thomas bounce-back would be a wonderful story. Scott Brooks makes a pretty good resting anguished face.
Eh. The basketball is going to be dreadful, and we don’t have Steve Buckhantz and Kara Lawson to chronicle it. The Celtics hired Lawson. The Wizards strung Buckhantz along before moving on. Boo. Buckhantz gave voice — via exasperated sighs and extended silences — to the hopelessness of a fan base.
29. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (19.5)
One of my random vivid memories from last season: watching from courtside on March 12 in Philadelphia as Collin Sexton kept the Cavs — without Kevin Love — close against a full-strength Philly team acting as if that game was beneath it.
I fell a little in love with Sexton that night. He sensed Philly’s disdain. It fueled him. He went at Joel Embiid and talked trash, chin-to-chest, during dead balls. He demanded the ball on every fourth-quarter possession, and produced: 26 points on 11-of-20 shooting.
He also had one assist. A Sexton-Darius Garland backcourt is going to chuck wacky shots as open teammates scream for the ball. At least Jordan Clarkson realized halfway through last season that passing is legal!
But Sexton has something you can’t teach — a little Westbrookian bravado that, if channeled the right way, can lift everyone around him.
Love will bring playmaking style and overall respectability unless and until the Cavs trade him. He has a nice pass-and-cut chemistry with Cedi Osman. Larry Nance Jr. is vowing to expand his perimeter game. Perhaps we will see one nostalgic glimpse of the Matthew Dellavedova–Tristan Thompson lob connection. If Kevin Porter Jr. sticks in the rotation, this ranking might look foolish.
The art is dull, save for this throwback bad boy:
Shading the baselines different colors is daring, and it works. The light blue is a needed jolt of brightness.
The late Fred McLeod is irreplaceable on play-by-play.
28. CHARLOTTE HORNETS (20.5)
This is one spot too high, but the algorithm could not resist the lure of Malik Monk unleashed. Will he fling a no-look crosscourt pass 15 rows into the stands? Pull up from 30 feet on a 1-on-3 fast break? Cram on some unsuspecting rim protector? He might do all three in a span of 90 seconds, and James Borrego might have to smile and clap through it.
27. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (22)
Chris Paul commandeering 60 pick-and-rolls every night for a mediocre team with minimal wing shooting and depth just isn’t that exciting anymore.
At least the Thunder are inching up the art rankings. This jersey, unveiled two seasons ago, instantly became the snazziest in franchise history:
They will wear an orange version this season.
The Thunder have topped that with a black jersey designed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The Thunder and Nike nailed every detail.
Next project: refresh that court, which has been the same since 2011.
Steven Adams remains a treasure — forever oblivious when his pointy-elbowed game irritates an enemy into what appears to Adams an unprovoked attack.
26. INDIANA PACERS (22.5)
The hunched, full-speed-ahead fury of healthy Victor Oladipo would jump Indiana at least a half-dozen spots, but it’s unclear when we are getting that player. Who holds your attention in the meantime?
Domantas Sabonis comes closest. He brings a rare combination of feathery passing and mean-spirited bully-ball. Sabonis squashes little guys on switches — shoves them aside, slams, and sneers down at them. When he rises to dunk and spots a help defender coming, Sabonis cocks the ball to add power. He aims to embarrass.
He and Doug McDermott share a wavelength:
Indiana starting Sabonis and Myles Turner means we get to witness an experiment unfold in real time. That’s interesting, even if we probably already know the result: They fit well enough to scrape by, but not so snugly that you should pay them $40 million combined (pending a new deal for Sabonis).
Turner is one of the league’s inscrutable talents. He protects the rim and shoots 3s. Those are unicorn skills — bedrocks of superstardom. But something is missing in the in-between moments. Turner’s feel comes and goes with weird abruptness. In one stretch, he’s a step ahead reading the opposing offense. Those are the moments when Turner inspires Quinn Buckner’s beloved “SMOTHERED CHICKEN!” call. This might be the greatest “SMOTHERED CHICKEN!” ever:
The euphoric “YEAH” and “FO SHO!” kill me.
But one quarter later, Turner might catch the ball in open space and have no idea what to do with it.
The offense is vanilla, and the defense won’t be the same frenzied, turnover-forcing machine without Oladipo and Thaddeus Young. Jeremy Lamb leaves everyone a little cold. T.J. Warren developing a workable 3-pointer last season was “good” in the practical sense, but do we need to cookie-cutter every wing? Let a teardrop artist float some teardrops!
25. SAN ANTONIO SPURS (23)
Did you know that when boring people pair up, their boringness multiplies into a stifling super-system of boredom? It’s true!
DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge might be the league’s two most stylistically boring All-Stars, and they not only play on the same team — they cooperate on the league’s staple play! It leads where you’d expect: jab steps, pivot moves, and midrange jumpers. So many midrange jumpers. My god, the midrange jumpers.
The Spurs ranked last in percentage of shots from both the restricted area and beyond the arc. (They also ranked 30th in dunks. Dunks are fun.) It is incredible they won 48 games despite such retrograde shot selection — and a defense that wobbled for the first time since Tim Duncan arrived.
How weird is coach Tim Duncan going to be? Does he own suits? Do they fit? Will he get extra leg room scrunching into the second row? Will he react to disputed calls with patented bug-eyed shock?
DeRozan drops the occasional hammer, and has a knack for graceful midair spins. Aldridge led the league in post-ups last season, per Second Spectrum, and that fadeaway over his right shoulder is high-arcing, buttery-soft gorgeousness when it’s dropping.
The real fun comes from the young guys and a rollicking bench mob that takes its cue from Patty Mills‘ caffeinated perpetual motion. Derrick White is a clever two-way player. The White-Dejounte Murray pairing can envelop opponents on defense.
But overall, it’s kind of a slog. Bat invasions at the AT&T Center have happened often enough to transition from charming to, “Is this maybe dangerous? Does everyone need a rabies shot?”
24. PHOENIX SUNS (23)
It’s OK to admit you’re more excited to track the Devin Booker–Deandre Ayton tandem than to watch the polished Spurs. Youth intrigues. If Booker and Ayton amplify each other as pick-and-roll partners and commit to some of the grimy stuff on defense, Phoenix has a real future. If they don’t, the Suns are aimless.
Booker’s critics are right about two things: He has been awful on the defense, and his silky stroke belies his middling 3-point shooting — 35% career, 32.6% last season. But some critics are burying him too soon as an inefficient gunner, and underselling what he has already achieved.
Booker averaged 27 and 7 last season, got to the rim at a career-best rate, attempted seven free throws per game, and hit a tidy 54% on 2s. You think it’s easy, or typical, for a 22-year-old to put up those numbers in any team context?
Booker has a nice change-of-pace game, and a solid left hand. He’s cagey disguising his pass-or-shoot intention:
Booker should round out his game playing amid more talent — including a point guard in Ricky Rubio who will spoon-feed him more catch-and-shoot 3s.
Ayton has giant magnet hands. He catches everything. Once he grasps the ball, no force outside his control can yank it away.
His appetite for post-ups is a relief from leaguewide stylistic hegemony. Ayton does not quite fit any of the templates for the modern NBA center: 3-and-D-ish unicorn; Tyson Chandler-style rim-runner; elbow passing savant. He will either gravitate toward one or become just good enough at everything to shapeshift based on team need.
But he will impact winning at the highest level only if he grows into an average defender. Some of his blunders over the first two months of last season were almost jarring in their cluelessness: awkward footwork patterns, ill-timed 180-degree turns — things you don’t see at this level. Ayton improved by spring. He looked more sure on his feet. Ayton continuing that growth might be the single most important variable in Phoenix this season.
Free throws are boring, and the Suns hack everyone; they have ranked 23rd or worse in opponent free throw rate in five straight seasons.
Kelly Oubre Jr. is always doing something nutty — including falling asleep as his man cuts behind him for a dunk.
Eddie Johnson goes hard at everyone on commentary. Thumbs up to this minimalist orange jersey with the flaming ball — one of only a few jerseys in league history to include no wordmark reference to the team’s name or city on the front:
23. DETROIT PISTONS (23.5)
Blake Griffin ran as many pick-and-rolls last regular season as Kawhi Leonard. He ran more than any other big man (unless you count LeBron) and many guards and wings for whom ballhandling is a defining skill. He attempted almost as many 3s (522) as he had in eight prior seasons combined (590), and still ranked sixth in total post-ups, per Second Spectrum. Only 10 players 6-foot-10 or taller have assisted on at least 25% of their teams’ baskets in any season. Griffin has hit that mark four times, most among that group, including in the past two seasons.
I’m not sure any player has reinvented his game to this degree while still retaining some elemental part of it — in this case, Griffin’s brutish post work. He is a brilliant player still innovating even as the revolution he helped usher in — or at least participated in — overtakes him. He exists outside unicorn mania. Maybe he is too “old” at 30, or too ground-bound on defense.
But he’s still damned fun to watch, and the central force keeping Detroit in playoff contention.
The rest is a harder sell: Luke Kennard‘s nascent pick-and-roll craft, Bruce Brown‘s in-your-jersey defense, Derrick Rose‘s resurgence, the implausible width of Andre Drummond‘s shoulders. Drummond is a one-man offensive rebounding gang, and it’s cool to watch him dominate in snippets using a skill that has largely gone out of style.
Maybe we’ll get one Joe Johnson buzzer-beater for old time’s sake? Hell, we’ll probably get like seven.
22. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (25)
Karl-Anthony Towns single-handedly vaults Minnesota over eight NBA teams. There is almost no other reason, save for the opponent, to choose a Minnesota game on an average night.
Towns has a chance to be the most well-rounded scoring big man ever. He sniffed 50-40-90 shooting territory in each of the past two seasons. He can score out of any action. He almost toggles between personas. On one trip, he’s all finesse — a step-back 3, or a soft jump hook lofted with a flick of the wrist before his defender gets off the ground. On the next possession, he might bulldoze that same defender for a dunk. Towns trailed only Aldridge in total post-ups, but variety makes for greater watchability.
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In some actions, Towns can look bulky — almost clumsy. And then he’ll set a screen and glide down the lane with speed and ferocity that make your hair stand on end: Did a man so large really traverse the horizontal plane that fast? Ryan Saunders promises to use Towns more as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Yes, please.
The rest of the roster is mostly blah. Jeff Teague was the human manifestation of “blah” last season. We all appreciate Robert Covington‘s archetypal 3-and-D game, but are you tuning in to to see it? Ditto for the unrealized potential of Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell.
Closeouts can be highlights!
Okogie has an unconventional counter when opponents hide smaller point guards on him: plow through them on cuts.
I still have hope Andrew Wiggins can be a helpful complementary player, even if every Wiggins midranger triggers acid reflux.
Dave Benz and Jim Petersen are world class on the call.
21. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (26)
I will watch every Ja Morant–Jaren Jackson Jr. pick-and-roll. Jackson had the best all-around rookie season among the five bigs selected in the top seven of the 2018 draft (Ayton, Jackson, Mohamed Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III.) It wasn’t all that close. He looks like a two-way star.
Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson get to make up for their lost 2018-19 season. There is no player quite like Anderson. On offense, he is a knee-buckling changeup. He moves so slowly as to confuse defenders used to NBA-level speed. He weaponizes slowness.
He plays faster on defense because of his anticipation and preposterous arms. Anderson looks you in the eye as he picks your pocket:
Jonas Valanciunas activated beast mode in Memphis. Taylor Jenkins figures to import viewer-friendly Mike Budenholzer principles. (Fewer fouls would be a nice starting point.) Brandon Clarke is a central-casting League Pass darling.
The Vancouver-era throwbacks look great. The accompanying court might be even better:
I love how the stripe of historic logos mimics the asymmetry of the team’s standard court:
Bruno Caboclo, Josh Jackson, and Grayson Allen bump up the curiosity score. Caboclo looked like a (deep) rotation player in Memphis, though he occasionally lost control of his extremities and clanked corner 3s off the side of the backboard. Is Allen more than a cartoon villain?
20. ORLANDO MAGIC (27.5)
The Magic give a professional effort. It’s just a staid, predictable one. You can close your eyes and see it: D.J. Augustin darting around a Nikola Vucevic screen and kicking the ball back to Vucevic; Evan Fournier flying off a Vucevic pick at the left elbow, catching on the move, and zipping into the lane as Vucevic pops to 3-point range; the Magic strangling fast-break fun out of the game.
It’s a pleasing side-to-side style, but it doesn’t produce leap-from-your-seat highlights. Aaron Gordon dunks — about one per game — are the main exception, and it is fascinating to watch Gordon navigate the angel-versus-devil battle raging within his basketball soul.
Angel: Be your version of Draymond Green. Prioritize defense. You don’t need the ball to be an All-Star!
Devil: Screw that coachspeak. You are the best athlete on the floor. Be LeBron. Call for a screen. Score 30.
Vucevic is one of the league’s pivot-foot artists. He puts suckers in the spin cycle:
Jonathan Isaac is all arms and potential and chaos. Bamba is a mystery, Markelle Fultz the league’s biggest curiosity.
Orlando’s blue-and-black scheme is always pleasing. The new pinstriped painted area is a unique twist:
19. MIAMI HEAT (27.5)
Miami’s equal opportunity machine of whirring cuts and handoffs ran its course, but a Jimmy Butler-centric offense isn’t all that aesthetically pleasing. There is a lot of jab-stepping and dribbling and burrowing inside for midrange jumpers.
By the way: Did you know Butler works hard, showed up to one practice at 3:30 a.m., and wants to win really badly? I’m not sure if he has mentioned that anywhere. Also: Arriving to practice at 3:30 a.m. is stupid.
This roster will be an evolving puzzle for Erik Spoelstra. I bet he changes the starting lineup multiple times even if everyone stays healthy. One example: If Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk start, how does Spoelstra divvy up defensive assignments? The Heat probably prefer Adebayo protecting the paint, but against some opponents, he might have to chase stretchy power forwards too quick for Olynyk.
Spoelstra could adjust by going smaller: more Justise Winslow, James Johnson (handoff ninja), Derrick Jones Jr. (one of the league’s five best dunkers), or the Emperor of Waiters Island. The Heat have the size and versatility to trot out some of the league’s funkiest lineups — groups that could be smothering on defense.
Adebayo is explosive and savvy — an underrated passer. I can’t wait to see what he does as a locked-in starter. Tyler Herro might be ready for more than a typical late lottery pick. Did I mention Waiters — the guy who wrote this masterpiece and maybe nicknamed himself Kobe Wade and probably believes, you’re damned right, he is the best player in the league — is back and in shape?
There is a lot to like before you even get to the best uniforms in the league. If the NBA and Nike don’t make the “Vice Nights” jerseys a permanent part of Miami’s rotation, what are we even doing here?
18. NEW YORK KNICKS (28)
The Knicks nail the minutiae: Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier, Madison Square Garden’s theater lighting, that classic blue paint. New York’s future is tied to five 21-and-under players: Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina. No one has an idea how good any of them will be. That alone is reason to watch.
Robinson might have the longest shot-blocking range in the league. He blots out jumpers few would even bother. He is also perhaps the league’s thirstiest lob-catcher; you sometimes spot him leaping for a lob no one has thrown:
Smith fears no rim protector. Knox looks the part; can he show substance in Year 2?
Mercenaries block the kiddos in the frontcourt, but they imbue the Knicks with a wild physicality and meanness — almost a hint of danger. Marcus Morris was ejected from New York’s first preseason game after mashing the ball in Justin Anderson‘s face. Seriously: He just raised the ball over his head, and shoved it flush into Anderson’s nose — a classic older brother move.
Bobby Portis can start brawls with his eyes. Julius Randle aims his boulder body straight at defenders in transition, knocks them sideways, and lays the ball in. Wayne Ellington is always bobbing and weaving around screens; he needs only an inch to fire. Allonzo Trier periodically turns into Jamal Crawford.
17. ATLANTA HAWKS (28)
Atlanta will be the most entertaining bad team. The Hawks played at the league’s fastest pace last season, launched tons of 3s, and ranked fifth in dunk attempts. Trae Young is a threat to bomb from anywhere, and a wizard whipping semi-blind long-distance passes — with either hand — when defenders swarm him beyond the arc.
Kevin Huerter fires without much conscience, and butts into the fray for rebounds. The rare moments when Jabari Parker tries on defense bring to mind the physical incongruity of an adult squeezing onto a child’s bicycle: You recognize the act he is trying to accomplish, but he is somehow fundamentally unfit for it. He doesn’t really know what to do, so he bounds around and waves his arms. (Parker can get buckets, and he’s a solid passer with something to prove.)
At the past two drafts, the Hawks effectively acquired Young, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish for Luka Doncic, the picks that became Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes, and more draft equity heading to the New Orleans Pelicans. Those are gutsy bets. Every game is a chance to monitor them.
16. THE DEFENDING CHAMPION TORONTO RAPTORS (30.5)
The algorithm is perhaps overcompensating for Kawhi Leonard’s departure, and projecting anxiety about potential trades. The Raptors still have: Kyle Lowry 50-foot outlets to Pascal Siakam in flight; Lowry buzzing around one step ahead of everyone; Siakam’s gangly start-and-stop drives, always appearing on the verge of pratfall disaster and somehow usually ending in profit; Marc Gasol slinging magic from every arm angle, including bowling ball-style passes; OG Anunoby hoping to reassert himself as a franchise pillar; and this national — nay, international — treasure telling hapless invaders to GET THAT GAHBAGE OUTTA HERE:
Hell, boring old Nick Nurse busted out the facial expression of the 2018-19 season:
Stanley Johnson and especially Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are worthy buy-low reclamation projects capable of defending every position — flexibility that unlocks a lot of lineup possibilities if one of them hits.
Depending on your taste, Drake — giver of in-game back rubs — is either an obnoxious camera hog or a genuine local hero-mascot.
The Raps are throwing it back to the Purple Dino era, complete with claw prints (!) from sideline to sideline and alternate logos of baby raptors eating basketballs and letters:
Awww, they think it’s food!
Maybe there really is a conspiracy against Canada’s team.
Part 2 coming soon