Lowe's League Pass Rankings! Breaking down NBA teams 30-11 in fun, style and unintended comedy

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 12, 2021

It's time for our dumbest NBA preseason tradition: League Pass Rankings! These rankings turn 10 today. I can't believe I continue to trick publications into running them.

These are not power rankings! They are watchability scores, derived from an ancient formula Bill Simmons claims appeared before him when he ingested too many TB12 supplements.

We score teams, 1-10, in five categories:

ZEITGEIST: Do actual humans care about this team?

STAR/HIGHLIGHT POTENTIAL: Do you stick around games, at the expense of sleep and loved ones, because one player might do something spectacular?

STYLE: Are they tactically interesting?

LEAGUE PASS MINUTIA: Announcers, jerseys, court designs.

UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY: Coaches making funny faces, passive-aggressive teammates, frequent bloopers, sneaky irritants.

30. Oklahoma City Thunder (18 points)

This an uphill battle for deep rebuilds. The Thunder bring up the rear again, despite the presence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander -- who appears to move in cinematic jump cuts, as if he is constantly buffering -- and one of the league's most unusual players in terms of skill set in Aleksej Pokusevski.

Poku is 7 feet and weighs only a little more than I do. He is physically implausible; he looks as if he plays on stilts. He is a gigantic perimeter player, with decent vision, a knack for blocking shots, and a tendency to throw way-too-ambitious passes in random directions.

Our guy Poku jacked almost seven 3s per 36 minutes and hit only 28%, a combination of profligacy and inaccuracy that has only been matched about a half-dozen times. He's so tall, he almost shoots downward.

It really feels as if the Poku pick will either be a home run or a disaster. He'll either develop into a borderline All-Star or a skinny turnover machine. Can you envision him turning into, like, his version of Danny Green? Nope.

Can we trust these guys to play Gilgeous-Alexander in the final 20 games? By the end of last season, they were trotting out hilariously bad lineups -- including super-big groups in which Kenrich Williams, who should be the 10th guy on a contender, was somehow a shooting guard.

Luguentz Dort mauling opposing stars is one of the NBA's secret delights. How does Josh Giddey translate? Can I interest you in some Ty Jerome, who has scraggly facial hair and hit 42% on 3s?

Mark Daigneault is a coach to watch. It will be fun listening to opposing announcers pause to check the names of Thunder players.

The Thunder need a total artistic redesign, though they have been on a roll with city edition jerseys.

Hypothesis: Mike Muscala is the most boring player in the NBA. Why? I have no idea; he just is.

29. Cleveland Cavaliers (21.5)

This is low for #Sexland, and for a team that sinceLeBron James' second departure has collected six interesting young players: the two members of #Sexland, Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Jarrett Allen and the uber-enticing Evan Mobley. The fit is murky, but these rankings are concerned only with fun.

Collin Sexton is the most telegenic kind of fearless: Napoleon complex mixed with chest-puffed self-belief that he is always the best player on the floor. Darius Garland can get crafty with the ball at full speed -- a rare thing.

Let's hope Kevin Love has one more epic on-court tantrum in him before the inevitable breakup. Two seasons ago, he committed a brazen and intentional 3-second violation just to make a point: Will one of these young guards please pass the freaking ball? Last season, he slapped an inbounds pass to no one -- allowing the Toronto Raptors to steal it. That stuff frustrates the Cavs, but it makes for great television.

Allen will challenge anyone at the rim, even if the would-be dunker has a head start.

Cleveland's offense last season was an unwatchable dribblefest, and fallow periods could look worse without the elbow playmaking of Love and Larry Nance Jr.

The Cavs' color combination just doesn't work. One fun new twist in their redesigned court: the "LET EM KNOW" wordmark contains the names of season-ticket holders. So, they've got that going for them, which is nice.

Basketball gods, please send Ricky Rubio to a good warm-weather team!

28. Orlando Magic (21.5)

Is this the league's weirdest collection of players?Markelle Fultz's jumper went from "totally broken" to "only kind of broken" before his knee injury; where is it now? What, exactly, isMo Bamba? Why are there so many centers? If we don't get to see at least 200 Robin Lopez ice-cream scoop hooks, what are we even doing?

Jonathan Isaac has played 136 games in four seasons -- and none since New Year's Day 2020, when we weren't sure the world was about to go to hell.

When we last saw him, Isaac was flashing NBA Defensive Player of the Year potential as an all-position destroyer, and finding his place on offense as a big guy who didn't get to set ball screens often. (I honestly can't believe we never saw lineups with Aaron Gordon and Isaac as the only two bigs. Is it in the collective bargaining agreement that Orlando must roster at least four centers?)

When Isaac returns, both Chuma Okeke and Franz Wagner will spend more time on the wing; Okeke looms as a crucial player going forward. The Fultz/Jalen Suggs/Okeke/Isaac/Wendell Carter Jr.lineup should entertain. R.J. Hampton zooms with turbocharged confidence -- and little regard for his own safety. Michael Carter-Williams will get around your damned pick, even if he has to crash through it; he ends up bleeding a lot.

The mystery is refreshing. Orlando maximized its talent under Steve Clifford, but the product had grown vanilla.

The art is first-rate, and the broadcast, with David Steele and Jeff Turner, is soothing: no homerism or bile, with the right mix of analysis and deadpan humor. Terrence Ross is good for a half-dozen scorchers.

27. San Antonio Spurs (22.5)

Maybe the young Spurs will bottle the energy of their bubble run -- when, with LaMarcus Aldridge out, this stodgy group revved up to the league's fastest pace and got to the basket at a rate approximating that of a normal team.

But the bet here is they play near an average pace -- and meander side to side before jacking hails of long 2s.

Hoops nerdom is curious which of San Antonio's young players could pop, and how one of the league's storied franchises might extricate itself from the wilderness after a quarter-century near the top. Dejounte Murray is their fulcrum -- an apparition on defense who can be in your face, and then somehow dart 15 feet to intercept your entry pass. Does he have another level on offense? Keldon Johnson attacks the rim to inflict pain. Can he drain enough 3s to be a real impact player?

Lonnie Walker IV is an enigma -- an open-court marauder whose decision-making can go haywire in the half court. Devin Vassell might have the most potential of all.Joshua Primo has looked good in preseason.

Drew Eubanks is a sneering dunker. Thaddeus Young is one of the league's great tricksters -- flicking hooks on the way up, before he faces the basket, from such goofy angles that the shot is in before Young's man realizes he should challenge it.

Hooray for the fiesta court!

26. Houston Rockets (24)

Jalen Green will get as many chances to run the show as he wants. We'll learn whetherKevin Porter Jr.'s eruption in Houston portended something real, or was merely empty-calories stat-chasing on a tanking team.

Christian Wood has a silky inside-out game -- feathery jumpers and gliding power dribbles -- that fits alongside both small-ball power forwards and burly centers. Feed me all the Wood-Alperen Sengun minutes.

Bridging the gap is a cadre of tweener wings so athletic, so reckless, so jolting and frenzied that they are something like the NBA's Flying Wallendas: David Nwaba, Kenyon Martin Jr.(an absolutely hellacious dunker), and Jae'Sean Tate, a switchy brute with nascent passing chops who is a reliable jumper away from being really interesting.

Will John Wall pretend to pay attention to games? Will Eric Gordon write "trade me" on his sneakers? Does Daniel Theis realize he signed with this team? Will Stephen Silas smile more after spending his first hellish year as coach in the James Hardenhoney bun vortex?

Is this too much red for one basketball court?

I think it is.

The Rockets overhauled their TV broadcast, and thank god, because no team needed it more. I can't wait to hear Mario Elie as an analyst; he was one of my favorite 1990s glue guys. The only downside: Matt Bullard, who was really good as third wheel, is now in the front office.

25. Detroit Pistons (25.5)

Inject the Cade Cunningham/Killian Hayes/Saddiq Bey/Jerami Grant/Isaiah Stewart lineup into my veins -- with a dash of Hamidou Diallo and Josh Jackson pinballing through traffic without any coherent plan.

What a nice landing spot this has turned into for Dwane Casey. With minimal pressure, Casey gets to coach -- really dig in and coach -- young, fierce players who have taken to his personality and go hard.

Grant wants to prove he is a big-time scorer; he keeps coming and coming, even after cold streaks. Bey is a problem. Stewart is turned up to 11 at all times. Any veteran big hoping to coast against Stewart had better brace himself for end-to-end sprints and pointy elbows to his gut. Stewart hit 48% on long 2s, and dabbled in 3s.Kelly Olynyk's pump-and-go move -- he should start a gas station chain with that name -- is so slow, it confuses defenders accustomed to NBA speed.

The Pistons are a sneakily great visual and auditory experience, minus the blah, gray alternate jerseys. George Blaha is a legend, and Greg Kelser brings no-nonsense analysis. Thumbs-up to both new courts:

Their old court had too much red. This one has the perfect blend of core colors. I love the basketball poking through each sideline -- echoed in Detroit's new 313 court. I'm generally not a fan of plain, wooden "painted" areas, but if you go that route, you need a bold color for the lines -- as the Pistons have done here using blue.

24. Indiana Pacers (26)

Let's be honest: The most exciting things about the 2020-21 Pacers were T.J. McConnell skulking to steal inbounds passes and Greg Foster nearly fighting Goga Bitadze as the tension simmering under Nate Bjorkgren exploded into the open.

McConnell is still here playing backcourt cat burglar, but Rick Carlisle will get this house in order -- which makes for less riveting melodrama.

Carlisle has meaty puzzles to solve: splitting ballhandling between Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert; reintegrating T.J. Warren (someday!) as both volcanic scorer and off-ball threat; and refining the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner pairing -- if Carlisle is as committed to it as his predecessors were.

LeVert is slithery. Sabonis has a delightful mean streak; he loves shoulder-checking guys to the floor, dunking as they fall, and gloating over their carcasses like a WWE heel.There is a lot of Isaiah Jackson buzz, and Chris Duarte should play right away.

They just don't make you leap from your seat. Only the Magic and Portland Trail Blazers recorded fewer dunks last season. Carlisle favors a low-risk half-court style. Sabonis lost his pass-and-cut tag team partner -- Doug McDermott -- to the Spurs.

The Pacers boast what is probably a top-five court:

That is the right mix of blue and gold. The state logo is a gem, and "We Grow Basketball Here" is so Indiana. The "grow" motif repeats in the center-court graphic, which evokes a sun-soaked field.

The broadcast trio of Chris Denari, Quinn Buckner, and Jeremiah Johnson doesn't miss -- and have chemistry only time and shared love of the sport can build.

23. Washington Wizards (26.5)

There is some indefinable drabness about the Wizards experience. Something about their red, white and blue jerseys doesn't work. Maybe it's the anodyne, all-lowercase wordmark, or the fat stripe across the middle that somehow looks amateurish.

The Gandalf era was hokey, but the nation's capital thing hasn't landed -- with the exception of one white alternate jersey that had faux cracks and creases meant to mimic blocks of marble.

Bradley Beal is an electric scorer with old-school midrange smooth. He and Spencer Dinwiddie should amp the pace, and take turns running spread pick-and-roll with shooters spotting up around an army of nasty dive men -- Daniel Gafford, Montrezl Harrell, and eventually Thomas Bryant. (Byrant has a really high ceiling on offense.)

Gafford tossed everyone's nonsense back once the Wiz stole him from the Chicago Bulls; he blocked 3.6 shots per 36 minutes in D.C., a mark only one rotation player leaguewide -- Myles Turner -- matched overall.

Rui Hachimura has hit just 31% from deep on low volume; he'll have to suss out his place within this an offense built around pick-and-rolls that don't often involve him directly. Hachimura has the craft and guile to do it. Dividing minutes between Hachiumura, Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, and Davis Bertans -- a walking heat check -- could get tricky; Wes Unseld Jr. might even try playing three of them at once just for kicks.

Dinwiddie has a cool "Electric Slide"-style exaggerated sidestep three:

Drew Gooden is candid and funny, brimming with behind-the-scenes stories.

22. Toronto Raptors (28)

This feels low for a group that should play avant-garde, vice grip defense. The Raptors can trot out lineups featuring a bunch of 6-foot-8-ish stoppers, and Nick Nurse is the mad scientist to do it. How about the fivesome of Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, and Chris Boucher?

Even in traditional lineups, no team will defend with more schematic versatility and sheer manic urgency. Boucher, Siakam, and Anunoby rank second, fifth, and sixth, respectively, in blocked 3-pointers over the past two seasons, per Second Spectrum. (Matisse Thybulle is No. 1.) Joel Embiid talked on the Lowe Post podcast about how he hates playing the Raptors because they swarm from odd angles, without conceding easy kickouts.

The Tampa Raptors fouled more than anyone, but they got the payoff for their swiping: the most forced turnovers, leading to open-court fun.

The offense might be a slog, but the Raps have two feisty and creative point guards in Goran Dragic and Fred VanVleet. Anunoby is about to make another leap. Nurse wants to play super fast to compensate for iffy spacing. Barnes might be ready for more ballhandling than anticipated.

Nurse has an incredible "I'm shocked and appalled!" face, and can hold a catcher's squat longer than actual baseball catchers. The claw-marked basketball is one of the NBA's best logos.

If you're having a bad day -- if life has got you down -- tune into a Raptors game, and let Jack Armstrong's high-pitched, raspy optimism cheer you up.

21. Sacramento Kings (29.5)

The Kings seem to have a winning entertainment formula: "blink and you'll miss it"De'Aaron Foxfast-breaking combined with what last season was one of the most inept defenses in league history. Points for everyone!

Tyrese Haliburton has the change-of-pace craft of a 10-year veteran, and lofts buttery alley-oop lobs to Richaun Holmes. It is hilarious -- and revealing -- when opposing announcers marvel at Holmes' push shot: Whoa, I didn't know Richaun Holmes had that in his game! Oh, you didn't?

The Fox/Haliburton/Buddy Hield/Harrison Barnes/Holmes lineup was a jet fueled festival of points -- and walloped Sacto opponents. With Davion Mitchell on board, skeptics wonder how Luke Walton can find minutes for four guards. Suggestion from the fun committee: Say to hell with defense and rebounding, we stink at those things anyway, and play all four together! (Mitchell, of course, projects as a very good defender.) Heck, slot Marvin Bagley III at center and see if you (and your opponent) can crack 150 points.

What is Sacramento doing with Bagley? He needs to play some center, but the Kings have Holmes, Tristan Thompson (side-swiping people out of rebounding position like George Costanza shoving children to escape a burning house), Damian Jones, and, for some reason,Alex Len. Barnes and Maurice Harkless are small-ball power forward types. Did the Kings just, like, stop caring about the guy the previous regime drafted over Luka Doncic?

How visibly will Hield sulk if he loses minutes, and how long until the Kings trade him?

Huge congratulations to Kayte Christensen-Hunter, stepping in as analyst after killing it as sideline reporter.

20. LA Clippers (30.5)

I guess this makes the Clips the least entertaining high-wattage team. The main reason is obvious: the absence ofKawhi Leonard's lethal, stop-on-a-dime midrange game, and his magnet hands on defense.

Even with Leonard, the Clippers were a grind-it-out crew almost entirely reliant on jump-shooting. That changed in the postseason, when Tyronn Lue busted out all the strategery he'd been hiding; the Clippers withSerge Ibakastill out are well-equipped to play the five-out, centerless style that tore apart the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz.

That cascading drive-and-kick machine is a nice fit for head-down attackers like Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Jackson, and for LA's army of wing shooters:Marcus Morris Sr., Luke Kennard (stop thinking and let it fly, Luke!), and Nicolas Batum. Terance Mann might serve both roles if he shoots anything like he did in humiliating Utah; he will be one of the league's most important swing guys over the next two seasons.

Paul George is a redeemed star (who wasn't in need of nearly as much redemption as the Pandemic P critics made it seem), but no normal person tunes in to watch him curl off screens.

The art is mostly a joke. Ivica Zubac is an under-the-radar nasty dunker. There is still some allure to Justise Winslow, right? Anyone? Jim Jackson and Mike Fratello splitting analyst duties is a home run: Fratello is a legend; Jackson a rising star. I'd watch a Steve Ballmer Cam, but only if it blurred out armpit sweat.

19. MinnesotaTimberwovles(31.5)

We awarded the Wolves bonus comedy points for misspelling their team name in their own news release announcing the sudden -- and very Wolves-y -- firing of their president of basketball operations last month.

You could order the next half-dozen teams any way you want, and there's a good chance Minnesota will be one of the league's 10 most entertaining teams. The Wolves hit the gas and fired more 3s once Chris Finch took over. Finch is an offensive guru with a long history of pushing skilled bigs to unlock the full breadth of their game.

Karl-Anthony Towns might be the most versatile scoring big man ever, and Finch will leverage every weapon -- Towns' velvety jumper, his explosive pump-and-go game, an unstoppable arsenal of both power and finesse post moves. Towns is a solid passer; Finch will push for more, and run offense through Towns at the elbows.

Towns has the potential to be a top-10 player. The gap between here and there comes down to defense, grit, and really caring about the grimy parts of winning.

Towns has experienced unfathomable tragedy. It would be a wonderful coda to see him rampage out of the gates and push the Wolves near .500 through 30 games; they are good enough to make the play-in. Give me a 27-12-5 line on 50/40/90 shooting, improved defense, and some freaking joy in the NBA's wintery den of losing.

Minnesota poured in almost 121 points per 100 possessions with Towns,D'Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards on the floor -- better than Brooklyn's league-best mark. (Kindly ignore the defensive numbers.)

For all his faults, Russell is a daring late-game shot-maker who cooks up ridiculous step-back streaks. Edwards showed glimpses of a powerful pick-and-roll game with Russell spotting up around him. Edwards is already one of the league's cruelest dunkers, wanted for smashingYuta Watanabeinto thousands of small pieces.

Patrick Beverley instigates something every game. Naz Reid is a more well-rounded scorer than you think. Jaden McDaniels might make or break Minnesota's season.

The broadcast is first rate, and I like this simplified court design -- with that classic howling wolf, and compact "Minnesota" wordmark:

18. Portland Trail Blazers (31.5)

Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard won a lot over nine years together. Stotts tweaked around the edges every season, but the big picture coalesced around the same themes: one- and no-pass possessions; flurries of off-the-bounce jumpers from star guards; and a dropback defense that worked in some seasons and imploded in others -- including last season.

It will be fascinating to see what Chauncey Billups changes. Maybe the right answer is "not much." Lillard and CJ McCollum should jack jumpers; McCollum shifted more of his beyond the arc last season, and was laying waste to the league before a foot injury. He is the Dean Malenko of the midrange -- the man of 1,000 moves, with balletic combinations of footwork that build toward step-back jumpers, sidesteps, and floaters with either hand.

There are few NBA experiences more exhilarating than a Lillard barrage. He has reached that hallowed point where on the road, in crunch time, the crowd makes a certain sound as Lillard prepares to shoot: a resigned groan mixed with screams of pure terror.

Portland's conservative defense was stingy with Jusuf Nurkic in the middle. Norman Powell and Larry Nance Jr. bring oomph -- Powell with speed, Nance with vertical thunder -- to a ground-bound team that ranked last in dunks. Nance and Nurkic will connect on one high-low play every game. The Blazers need Nance to hit 3s, and defend everywhere from small forward to center.

The bench is the wild card, and there might be no wilder wild card anywhere than Anfernee Simons.

Portland might have the league's snazziest art, starting with its untouchable pinwheel logo -- one of the only wordless and purely abstract logos in sports that still manages to invoke the specific flowing speed of basketball. The court -- half-red, half-black -- is a masterpiece:

Oh, there's this: if the Blazers disappoint, even slightly, every game gets heavier as the league monitors Lillard's situation.

17. Miami Heat (32)

I almost overrode the algorithm and shoved the Heat to the bottom for scrapping the "Vice" uniforms and courts. I'm legitimately upset.

The algorithm might be missing the subtle splendors of Miami's half-court offense. The Heat lean old and slow; they ranked 29th in pace, andKyle Lowry's hit-aheads might not ratchet things up without the wing runners he had in Toronto. Bam Adebayo is Miami's only regular dunker.

But the Lowry/Adebayo/Jimmy Butler/Duncan Robinson foursome overflows with an old-school, bob-and-weave creativity that thrives in tight confines.

Lowry and Butler are bruising give-and-go artists. Lowry plays on his toes, always. Butler is an underrated passer and cutter; if he can't cut past his man, he might burrow through him. Adebayo is one of the league's best big man passers, with a penchant for thread-the-needle jobs that spike Erik Spoelstra's blood pressure. Those three will improvise symphonies.

Robinson expands their operating space. He and Adebayo have built one of the league's most layered two-man dances. Defenses double Robinson when he pops off Adebayo picks, and Robinson does enough with the ball now -- one-dribble moves, slick pocket passes -- to slingshot Adebayo toward the paint with a 4-on-3 advantage.

The quartet of Lowry, Butler, Adebayo, and P.J. Tucker will bludgeon opposing scorers -- and talk smirking junk to them while doing it. Heat games could get spicy.

We get to see whether Tyler Herro makes a leap, and if Adebayo takes another step as a one-on-one scorer or a jump-shooter -- or both.

The bloodred uniforms are classic, and John Crotty is thriving as Miami's analyst.

16. New York Knicks (32.5)

The Knicks ranked last in pace and first in isolations, and still land in the middle -- a tribute to one of the league's two best broadcast experiences: the classic jerseys and pristine blue court drenched in theater-style lighting; the Hall of Fame combination of Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier, with bang-up sideline work from Rebecca Haarlow; James Dolan's Droopy the Dog courtside slouching; and perhaps the league's most electric crowd.

Madison Square Garden is about to unleash a supersonic shriek of pent-up, late-pandemic (maybe?) fandom -- an eardrum-bursting celebration of organizational competency that once seemed an impossible dream.

Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier bring variety -- relief from the tyranny of Julius Randle isolations that worked well, but did not make for the most telegenic product. Even this wounded, aging version of Walker is one of the league's master dribblers -- a hunched whir of rapid-fire moves that crescendo like boxing combinations.

RJ Barrett got better at everything; I can't wait to see what he has in store. Obi Toppin seemed comfortable in the postseason hothouse. Maybe he can carve out a larger role, and cram more power-dunk highlights.

Will Tom Thibodeau experiment with Randle at center?

Random note: Almost all the Knicks' jerseys have featured the "New York" wordmark. As a longtime former New Yorker who believes it is the best city in the world, I appreciate the impulse to trumpet it.

But this team is starved for a killer alternate, and I propose they experiment with "Knicks" on the front.

15. Boston Celtics (33)

Boston's offense wasn't quite the "your turn, my turn" blah-fest critics made it out to be last season. The Celtics ranked ninth in isolations and in the middle in passes. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are scorers first, but both advanced as playmakers -- especially Tatum. How much more they grow that part of their games will determine how far they lead Boston.

Marcus Smart's hustle has long overshadowed his sound passing, and he gets his chance as undisputed starting point guard. He is prone to bonkers shot selection that has at times annoyed teammates -- see the Orlando bubble -- and he must modulate that now.

A perhaps uncomfortable truth for Tatum and Brown is that Boston's offense functions best -- and they get easier shots -- when a little more of it runs through their big-man facilitators. Boston may start two in Al Horford and Robert Williams III, and whether that alignment contains enough playmaking and spacing will be a bellwether.

People caught onto Time Lord's passing last season; he picked out cutters and gained confidence making plays in space:

Mike Gorman is a deserving Hall of Famer. Brian Scalabrine is incisive and funny. His objectivity annoys Boston fans used to Tommy Heinsohn's throaty homerism, but it's the right pivot.

As Nikola Jokic lit up the Celtics in Boston last season, Scalabrine compared Jokic to Larry Bird and finally just started laughing after Jokic baskets. The adoration irked fans so much, Gorman acknowledged on air that they were getting hammered on social media. Ignore it, guys!

The green jerseys are the best in sports, period; the league should mandate Boston start games down 5-0 when they wear their godawful generic black alternates.The parquet court is No. 2, behind only the Los Angeles Lakers' floor.

14. Memphis Grizzlies (33.5)

Ja Morant is becoming one of the NBA's great showmen -- the rare point guard who offers both dunking fireworks and nuanced playmaking that titillates NBA nerds.

Morant's combination of speed and ferocity helps him punch above his weight as a dunker. He uses backdoor cuts as launching pads; he runs into the catch at full throttle, and he leaps to steal your soul.

Morant is a blur, but at 22, has already discovered the power of slowing down. Even amid the mayhem of transition, Morant will decelerate and allow players to pass him -- crashing over him like waves -- knowing someone will pop open behind the chaos. You don't see guards his age clowning victims with the Smitty fake spin, and finishing with one-handed lefty gathers ...

... or using pass fakes with such viciousness:

What a joy to be Morant's teammate.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the defining players of the next half-decade. If he's an All-Star, the Grizz have something big going. If he's just good, they face tough choices. Jackson is healthy, and will get more shots -- at both power forward and center -- with Jonas Valanciunas now smashing fools in New Orleans.

Dillon Brooks might be the NBA's irrational confidence king. Does he think shots with a foot on the 3-point arc are worth five points? His bumping physicality on defense is grist for nose-to-nose confrontations.

Slow-Mo Anderson has weaponized his own slowness on offense, and just takes the ball from someone on defense -- like, literally reaches out and grabs it from a stand-still -- at least once per game.

De'Anthony Melton is one of only two rotation players listed 6-2 or shorter to finish any season averaging at least one block, two steals, and five rebounds per 36 minutes. Pete Pranica and Brevin Knight nicknamed Melton "Mr. Do Something," and that's perfect.

If you like floaters, the Grizz are your team. They force heaps of turnovers without over-fouling (aside from Brooks) -- an appealing combo.

13. Dallas Mavericks (34)

The league is in a good place if Luka Doncic's team can't crack the top 10. Doncic can make every pass, from every spot -- even when he's under the rim with four defenders enveloping him.

Every move-within-a-move -- every jab step, spinning pivot, shoulder fake and sideways glance -- has a purpose. Doncic knows how each one might manipulate all five defenders, and which reactions will open up particular shots. Doncic isn't one step ahead as much as he can visualize all potential outcomes at once when the defense is just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. As we've seen in the playoffs, Doncic has a counter for every defensive strategy.

Jason Kidd is the season's biggest X factor. With Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard injured, the Mavs have a pathway to the conference finals or beyond -- if Kidd would simply replicate Rick Carlisle's schemes.

Kidd surely doesn't think his failed Milwaukee-era blitzing defense is a fit for Kristaps Porzingis and the Mavs' army of centers, right? How serious is he about posting up Porzingis -- and starting him alongside a paint-clogging center in Dwight Powell? Should the Mavs really run much offense beyond, "Let Luka cook"?

Keeping Porzingis active within that construct is one of Kidd's most important jobs. Playing Porzingis as solo big would make it harder for switchier defenses to neutralize him.

The art is so dull, I embraced the polarizing graffiti jerseys Dallas unveiled two seasons ago.

The three-man broadcast is lively. Spotting an animated, ornery Mark Cuban in his baseline seat still brings a smile. Will we see Dirk Nowitzki at games? Can he join the broadcast a few times?

The Mavs have more shooting around Doncic; here's hoping Dallas is where Sterling Brown earns a full-time role. I'm not out on Josh Green!

Jalen Brunson is a spinning cinder block. Boban Marjanovic has been launching 3s in preseason. More Boban, please!

12. Philadelphia 76ers (34.5)

Ben Simmonshas arrived in Philly, but will he play? If he does, it makes the Sixers -- back-to-back League Pass champions in 2019 and 2020 -- more watchable than this ranking suggests; we'd need Zapruder-level analysis of every possession and sideline interaction. Did Simmons look off Joel Embiid there? Did he sneer at Doc Rivers before refusing to take a jumper?

Too many free throws -- Philly generates piles on both ends -- normally reduces watchability, but every Simmons free throw is must-see.

If Simmons ends up traded sooner rather than later -- and without knowing what Philly might get in return -- how psyched are you, really, to watch this team? I enjoy Seth Curry -- including his pouncing thievery on defense -- but there was an alarming amount of Curry going on in the conference semifinals as Simmons melted into oblivion. The stakes don't feel the same with the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks heavy East favoriteseven in the unlikely event Simmons is fully engaged with the Sixers.

Still: Embiid might be the league's most entertaining player -- a unique mix of throwback brutality, nimble footwork, improved midrange touch and biting trash talk. Will we see more of Embiid's post game if Simmons is gone -- decluttering the lane?

Embiid owns real estate in the heads of so many centers -- including Andre Drummond. It's almost a shame they are teammates -- that we don't get to witness Embiid's ritualistic humiliation of Drummond -- unless we get more of this Embiid nonverbal snark:

The young guys are interesting, especially Tyrese Maxey, but the learning curve is always bumpier than you imagine. The art is neck-and-neck with Portland for No. 1 overall. Doc Rivers makes the NBA"s best Anguished Coach Face. His mouth flattens into a long straight line, and his skin cinches up so tightly, you fear his face might crack apart.

Matisse Thybulle is a phantom. No one moves quite like he does. Like, how?

11. Utah Jazz (34.5)

We have reached elite territory. Utah's drive-and-kick blender is nirvana for die-hards, and Quin Snyder brings a twist each season. A year ago, it was transition 3s -- plus the greenest light imaginable for Jordan Clarkson.

You might think the Jazz are staid, but they have two audacious heat-check gunners in Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic -- with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, the latter once deferential to a fault, hoisting with abandon.

Mitchell is emerging as a scheme-proof postseason superstar, though without Doncic's size and playmaking acumen. He made strides last season as a passer and cutter, and the more of an active, roving threat Mitchell makes himself, the more dangerous Utah's offense gets.

Joe Ingles is a top-five trash-talker who gets in the middle of something every game. He might have the best pass fake since Manu Ginobili, and he takes sadistic pleasure in embarrassing defenders with it.

Utah faces the pressure that comes with four straight postseason disappointments, involved new ownership, and Finals-or-bust expectations. If they start slow, stress levels could rise fast. (Ryan Smith, the Jazz governor, has inspired a debate among my friends: Is wearing a hat backwards in public over age 40 a red flag? Discuss.)

Let's see if Snyder gives Rudy Gobert more chances to beast switches -- a way of preparing for small-ball lineups Utah will see in the postseason.

I love both courts:

The note with the multicolored ball at the head is maybe my favorite slice of NBA art. Thumbs up for keeping the gradient court even though the jerseys are gone. Did you hear that, Heat? You couldn't have at least kept the "Vice" court? I'm still mad.

I also dig this yellow jersey -- one of at least three new-ish alternates (the others belong to the Spurs and Phoenix Suns) with no lettering on the front:

Watch the bit players: Miye Oni, Eric Paschall, Trent Forrest, and Jared Butler all bring explosive, unpredictable activity that makes for a nice contrast with Utah's beautiful game.

Also: Holly Rowe!!!

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