2021-22 NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Ranks on Day 1

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 19, 2021

2021-22 NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Ranks on Day 1

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Three months ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy as the 2020-21 NBA champions.

    After a truncated offseason that featured limited superstar movement (but plenty of role player relocations), Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are set to tip off their title defense.

    It won't be an easy road, though. Right now, two teams—the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers—have shorter title odds, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. And several other teams could conceivably win it all, too.

    These power rankings will focus on where teams are right now. A team like the Lakers, one of the few squads who did participate in a star shakeup, will probably need some time to jell. The Nets, currently missing guard Kyrie Irving due to New York's COVID-19 restrictions, could get him back in time for the playoffs.

    Instead of a forecast for the upcoming season, think of this as more of a "who would win the Finals if they were held tomorrow" sort of exercise.

30. Orlando Magic

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    To outperform expectations this season, the Orlando Magic would likely need leaps from promising young(ish) players like Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. Unfortunately, both are without timetables to return as they recover from torn ACLs.

    That means even younger players like Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony will be running plenty of possessions, which probably means lots of losses.

    There should be some highlights and intriguing moments along the way. That's often the case for rebuilding teams. But this season will be more about growing pains and piling up losses in preparation for next summer's draft lottery.

    Adding one more blue-chip talent like Paolo Banchero to a core that already includes Suggs, Isaac, Fultz, Wendell Carter Jr. and Mo Bamba would boost Orlando's long-term prospects.

    Title Odds: +25000

29. Houston Rockets

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Like Orlando, the Houston Rockets are in the middle of a rebuild that should feature tons of usage for mostly unproven guards.

    The preseason isn't always indicative of much, but 21-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. and 19-year-old rookie Jalen Green were first and second on the team in field-goal attempts per game, respectively. And it isn't like Houston is saving some veterans for increased responsibility in the regular season. If anything, KPJ and Green might play even more when the games count.

    They'll have their big games, as Porter did with his 50-point double-double last season, but youth typically doesn't translate to wins. And Christian Wood, Eric Gordon and D.J. Augustin aren't the kind of vets who can overcome that (nor would Houston want them to).

    Instead, the Rockets will be looking for promising flashes from their young players and plenty of pingpong balls for next year's draft lottery.

    Title Odds: +25000

28. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The Oklahoma City Thunder have the youngest roster in the NBA, and winning seemed to be one of the front office's last priorities in 2020-21. They figure to be more competitive than Orlando and Houston right off the bat, though.

    The presence of at least one known star, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, is what sets them apart. Market and lack of team success keep SGA from the same level of attention received by other young guards, but his production suggests he's a top-30-to-40 player.

    Over the last two seasons, Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 21.7 points, 4.4 assists and 1.6 threes per 75 possessions with an above-average true shooting percentage. As long as he's healthy, OKC has a go-to scorer and playmaker who can at least make the team pesky.

    Being much better than the bottom tier will require someone to help SGA, though. Among all of the candidates, rookie Josh Giddey might be the best option.

    In four preseason games, the 6'9" teenage playmaker averaged 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.0 threes while shooting 40.0 percent from deep.

    Title Odds: +25000

27. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Detroit Pistons are likely to finish at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but they have a solid front line.

    Jerami Grant averaged a career-high 22.3 points last year as Detroit's No. 1 option. Saddiq Bey averaged 12.2 points and shot 38.0 percent from deep as a rookie. Isaiah Stewart nearly averaged a double-double in his 14 starts. And free-agent signee Kelly Olynyk averaged 19.0 points, 4.1 assists and 1.8 threes in 31.1 minutes after being traded to Houston last season.

    However, Detroit's backcourt houses a lot of questions.

    2021 No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham seems like a borderline can't-miss prospect, but he's only 20 years old. There's a good chance he's a few years away from pushing the needle toward wins. Killian Hayes showed plenty as a passer in his rookie campaign last year, but his effective field-goal percentage was over 13 percentage points below the league average.

    If either one is ahead of schedule in 2021-22, Detroit could push for a spot in the play-in tournament. If not, this will likely be another season with 50-plus losses.

    Title Odds: +25000

26. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Back in September, The Ringer's Jackie MacMullan offered a peek inside a conversation she had with Stephen Curry regarding young players he's reached out to.

    "He loves Darius Garland," MacMullan said on the Bill Simmons Podcast. "A lot. A lot, a lot, a lot. He thinks that kid is going to be a flat-out star."

    If the end of Garland's 2020-21 campaign is any indication, Curry might be onto something. Between the All-Star break and an absence that pretty much ended his season (25 games), Garland averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 assists and 2.2 threes while shooting 40.3 percent from deep.

    Even in this era of hypercharged offenses, those are borderline All-Star numbers. If Garland picks up where he left off, and Collin Sexton remains a mid-20s scorer, the Cleveland Cavaliers will have one of the game's more dynamic backcourts.

    However, both Garland and Sexton are 6'1", which puts the Cavs at a defensive disadvantage in most games and places a lot of responsibility on Jarrett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley.

    Title Odds: +25000

25. San Antonio Spurs

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    After making 22 straight trips to the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs appear poised to miss the postseason for the third year in a row.

    The Spurs aren't entirely devoid of talent. In fact, they have plenty of solid rotation players. However, they don't have a surefire star in the mix.

    If you sort players by the average of their ranks in various season forecasts from around the internet, San Antonio doesn't have a single player near the top 50. 

    Institutional stability, solid defense from Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl and some shotmaking from Derrick White will make the Spurs competitive on plenty of nights, but their ceiling is probably 35-40 wins.

    Title Odds: +24000

24. Sacramento Kings

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Continued development for young guards like De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton should make the Sacramento Kings better than they were last year. If Davion Mitchell can give them anything as a rookie—and his intensity on defense suggests he might—they'll have a dynamic backcourt.

    The problem is that they remain in a Western Conference stacked with talent. Even if the Kings make some incremental improvements, it's hard to imagine them leapfrogging enough teams to crack the playoffs.

    To pull that off, the Kings would probably need a monumental leap from Marvin Bagley III. The 22-year-old has averaged 20.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions over the course of his career, but inefficient scoring and nonexistent defense have made him a net negative.

    If Bagley lives up to his draft pedigree, Fox and Haliburton continue to improve, Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes make the requisite veteran contributions and Richaun Holmes remains a force as a roll man, Sacramento could push for the top 10.

    But that's an awful lot of ifs.

    Title Odds: +24000

23. Toronto Raptors

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Few teams seem to have as wide a range of potential outcomes as the Toronto Raptors. Kyle Lowry is gone, but two key contributors from the 2019 title team, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, remain.

    OG Anunoby's game has also grown by leaps and bounds since that season. If his preseason numbers (19.3 points on 12.5 shots in 25.1 minutes per game) are any indication, Anunoby is ready to be a first or second scoring option.

    The problem is that after those three, there are so many wild cards. Even Siakam, who made an All-Star team in 2019-20, hasn't had an above-average true shooting percentage since Kawhi Leonard was in Toronto.

    If Siakam can bounce back to the level he was at for the title run and first half of the 2019-20 campaign, Anunoby scores at anywhere near the level he has this preseason, and one or two of the younger players takes off, Toronto could be right back in the playoffs.

    However, as is the case with the Kings, there are a lot of hypotheticals there.

    Scottie Barnes has looked like an intriguing young playmaker in the preseason, where he's averaged 5.6 assists in 26.3 minutes. Precious Achiuwa has been dominant on the glass and on defense. But drawing conclusions from five preseason games is dangerous.

    If that keeps up in the regular season, the Raptors will climb this ladder quickly.

    Title Odds: +13000

22. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves have plenty of talent on the roster, particularly on offense. That starts with star center Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Only six players in NBA history (LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Durant, Charles Barkley, Chris Paul and Magic Johnson) have played at least as many minutes and exceeded Towns' offensive box plus/minus through an age-25 season.

    His No. 2 option, Anthony Edwards, averaged 23.8 points after the All-Star break and showed a versatile attack that included pull-up threes and drives. The Wolves also have D'Angelo Russell, a polarizing guard who's averaged 22.1 points and 6.7 assists per 75 possessions for his career.

    When those three were all on the floor last season, Minnesota was plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions.

    The problem is that because of injuries, that trio played only 690 possessions together. And unless Towns or Edwards takes a leap on the other end, there doesn't figure to be a plus defender among them.

    Title Odds: +21000

21. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Washington Wizards traded star power for depth this offseason when they sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers for a package including Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

    They now have a roster that seemingly revolves around Bradley Beal. As long he stays healthy, that's probably a good thing.

    Beal, who's averaged at least 30 points in each of his last two seasons, can score from all three levels.  Surrounding him with players who can open up space around the rim and in the mid-range makes sense.

    The Wizards have a number of similarly sized forwards and a stretch 5 in Thomas Bryant who'll pull bigs away from the paint.

    And if Beal averaged 31.3 points last season while playing with Westbrook, just imagine what he's capable of with Russ gone and working within a roster like this one.

    Title Odds: +16000

20. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Pelicans' short- and long-term outlooks are largely dependent on the health of Zion Williamson. And at the moment, he's still recovering from an offseason foot fracture that required surgery.

    That's a problem for the Pelicans, who are minus-3.6 points per 100 possessions without Zion on the floor over the last two seasons. They're plus-2.5 with him.

    In theory, the Pelicans have enough offense with Brandon Ingram, Devonte' Graham and Jonas Valanciunas to hold down the fort in Zion's absence. However, Williamson is one of the most prolific scorers of all time and the face of the franchise. He won't be easily replaced.

    Until he comes back, it'll be difficult to evaluate New Orleans. Right now, it's all about trying not to fall too far in the standings as he recovers.

    Title Odds: +10000

19. Indiana Pacers

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    This might not feel like enough of a bump for going from first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren to Rick Carlisle, who ranks among the top 20 all time in both regular-season and playoff wins. But there are still plenty of questions about how certain Indiana Pacers mainstays fit together.

    Over the last two seasons, the Pacers have been better when one of Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner plays without the other. In 2020-21 alone, they were minus-3.2 points per 100 possessions whenever Sabonis played with Malcolm Brogdon.

    On paper, a lineup with Brogdon, Caris LeVert, T.J. Warren, Sabonis and Turner seems to fall comfortably into place. And to be fair, that group has yet to log a single minute together thanks to injuries.

    But reality hasn't mirrored theory during this era of Pacers basketball. Perhaps that's where Carlisle comes in.

    Maybe he's the perfect conductor who'll figure out where to place all of the chess pieces. After years of playoff struggles with the Dallas Mavericks, though, this is a wait-and-see situation.

    Title Odds: +10000

18. Charlotte Hornets

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    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    When Gordon Hayward played his final game in 2020-21, the Charlotte Hornets were 25-23 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

    The wheels fell off for the team after the veteran forward left the lineup with an injury. They went 8-16 the rest of the way and got dismantled by the Indiana Pacers in the play-in tournament.

    With a few sneaky offseason additions, Hayward back in the mix and LaMelo Ball a year older, Charlotte should look more like the team that started 2020-21 than the one that closed it.

    With Ball, Hayward and Mason Plumlee, the Hornets have three plus passers for their positions. And with two good three-point shooters, Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges, filling out the presumed starting five, the offense should be dynamic.

    If Kelly Oubre Jr., P.J. Washington or James Bouknight pops for the second unit, the Hornets should be firmly in the hunt for a playoff spot.

    Title Odds: +13000

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    During his two-plus seasons with the team, the Memphis Grizzlies were plus-1.6 points per 100 possessions with Jonas Valanciunas on the floor and minus-1.6 with him off.

    That made the trade that sent him to New Orleans for a package including Steven Adams a bit of a surprise. When you look at it through the prism of what's best for Ja Morant, though, it makes some sense.

    Valanciunas is an old-school bruiser who does a lot of damage on the low block, which also means he takes up space in there. On the other hand, Adams has tons of experience as a rim-runner alongside a slashing guard. He did it for years with Russell Westbrook.

    More pick-and-rolls for Morant with a downhill rim-runner should draw defenses into the paint, which will give shooters like Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. a little more time on catch-and-shoot opportunities.

    In the gauntlet of the West, that tweak might not be enough to escape the play-in tournament. But it isn't hard to see why the Grizzlies did it.

    Title Odds: +8500

16. New York Knicks

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    There seems to be some residual doubt about the New York Knicks' surprisingly strong 2020-21 campaign lingering in the ether.

    Perhaps some don't trust Julius Randle's breakout. Maybe it was the quick flameout in the playoffs.

    Whatever the case, FanDuel's preseason over-under (41.5) sees a major regression in win percentage incoming, despite the offseason additions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier.

    It wouldn't be hard to talk yourself into thinking New York will outperform those expectations.

    Randle is on the verge of his prime. There should be plenty of development left for 21-year-old RJ Barrett, 22-year-old Immanuel Quickley and 23-year-old Mitchell Robinson. And even with Walker's shaky health last season, it's hard to see him and Fournier as anything but an upgrade over Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock.

    Title Odds: +10000

15. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    With Kawhi Leonard having suffered a partially torn ACL in June, it's hard to imagine him logging a single minute during the 2021-22 campaign. However, FanDuel still gives the Los Angeles Clippers the seventh-shortest odds to win the title.

    If the Kawhi-less Clippers can scrape their way into the playoffs and Leonard returns for those games, those title odds would make more sense. But that hypothetical is months away.

    At this point, L.A. winning games is squarely on the shoulders of Paul George. Sure, there are plenty of solid role players like Marcus Morris Sr., Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka on the roster, but they all received far less defensive attention last season. Supporting two superstars is a lot different than supporting one.

    PG, his co-stars and the Clippers' infrastructure are too good to fold, but the playoffs aren't a given in the West without Kawhi.

    Title Odds: +1600

14. Chicago Bulls

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls pushed a lot of chips in last season when they traded Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and two first-round picks for Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu. This summer, they went all-in by adding Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso in free agency.

    They now figure to have one of the most offensively dynamic core fours in the league. They'll likely give up tons of points, but this group has a chance to get back to the postseason just by outgunning opponents.

    Last season, the averages for assists per 75 possessions for those four ranged from Vucevic's 4.2 to DeRozan's 7.5. The ball should be flying all over the floor for Chicago in 2021-22. And all three scoring levels are thoroughly covered.

    Vucevic can score inside or from three. DeRozan is a mid-range weapon. Lonzo's three-point shooting turned a corner in New Orleans. And LaVine has developed into one of the game's most dangerous scorers from anywhere.

    Title Odds: +6000

13. Boston Celtics

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics went .500 last season before being wiped out by the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. Four of their top five players in VORP (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III and Marcus Smart) are all back.

    So, what exactly makes this year's team easier to trust than the 2020-21 version?

    For one, those four aforementioned returners are still young. Smart is right in the middle of his prime, but the other three are well shy of theirs. There's reason to expect more improvement from them, as well as Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith.

    Not having to rely on the health of Kemba Walker is a plus, too. He was effective when he was on the floor, but he played only 43 games in 2020-21 and 56 the year before. As he ages into his 30s, it's fair to wonder if that trend will continue.

    The infusion of ideas from new head coach Ime Udoka also seems to have rejuvenated an organization that had perhaps stagnated with Brad Stevens.

    Title Odds: +5000

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have served as untimely and unfortunate limits on the Portland Trail Blazers' success over the last few years. When healthy, those two form a trio with Damian Lillard that has to be taken seriously.

    Over the last three years (playoffs and regular season included), the Blazers are plus-8.3 points per 100 possessions when all three are on the floor. In 2021-22, those three will be surrounded by a beefed-up supporting cast that includes Robert Covington, Norman Powell, Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller.

    The first two can help keep the floor spread around pick-and-rolls with Nurkic and Lillard. Nance gives them a multipositional defender and underrated passer who can provide some inside-out playmaking. And though Zeller isn't as prolific of an offensive threat as Enes Kanter, he's an experienced roll man who can create some vertical gravity for reserve units.

    If Nassir Little or Anfernee Simons takes a developmental leap, Portland will be a night-to-night problem.

    Title Odds: +8000

11. Dallas Mavericks

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    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    Consider this a nod to Luka Doncic as much as anything.

    The Dallas Mavericks' headline acquisitions this summer were probably wing Reggie Bullock and head coach Jason Kidd. The former is a good floor spacer, but no one would confuse him for a star. The latter has plenty of reputation-busting to do after less-than-stellar coaching stops with the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks.

    But the Mavs should remain a borderline top-10 team because of their 22-year-old perennial MVP candidate.

    As long as Doncic is on the roster, Dallas should have a formidable offense. He can break down any opposition's scheme, get to the paint and either finish or spray out to the right targets around the perimeter. At this point, his production is a given.

    The wild card for the Mavericks is Kristaps Porzingis. If he's the three-and-D dynamo he was at the end of the 2019-20 campaign, Dallas could be a stealth contender. If he's the lead-legged defender who stands in the corner on offense that he was for much of 2020-21, it could be a frustrating season for Mavs fans.

    Title Odds: +3000

10. Miami Heat

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    After an unexpected run to the 2020 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat took a bit of a step back in 2020-21. Their winning percentage crept down, and the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks swept them in the first round.

    In the wake of that shellacking, Miami added Kyle Lowry to a core that remains mostly intact from that 2020 run. Though Lowry is entering his age-35 season, it's hard to see him as anything but an upgrade at the 1.

    Last season, Lowry had an above-average box plus/minus, while the Heat didn't have a single guard who could say the same (unless you Jimmy Butler as a guard).

    With Lowry taking a pinch of the playmaking duties from Butler, the All-Star wing will be freed up for a few more off-ball opportunities. That could offer a boost to Butler's already efficient attack.

    And surrounding those two with still-developing talents like All-Star Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro should make Miami a tough matchup for anyone.

    That's especially true if Herro's play in this preseason is indicative of what he'll do in 2021-22. In five games, Herro averaged 22.4 points in 26.9 minutes while shooting 44.8 percent from three.

    Title Odds: +2500

9. Golden State Warriors

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    The Golden State Warriors have a dramatic range of potential outcomes.

    Draymond Green and Stephen Curry are both a year older. Klay Thompson's return date remains a mystery. And they might rely a ton on unproven young players like James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga.

    But even as Curry ages past his prime, he remains one of the biggest individual needle-movers in basketball.

    Last season, when he played without Kelly Oubre Jr. (who's now in Charlotte), the Warriors were plus-13.2 points per 100 possessions (97th percentile). In those same alignments, Curry averaged 50.6 points per 100 possessions with a 68.4 true shooting percentage by himself.

    It took a while for Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to relent on a "just let Curry cook" offensive philosophy. But once he did, Golden State made a late-season surge to the play-in tournament.

    In 2021-22, the Warriors figure to start closer to that approach.

    Title Odds: +1200

8. Atlanta Hawks

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    From the point Nate McMillan took over as interim head coach to the end of the 2020-21 regular season, the Atlanta Hawks had the third-best record in the NBA. They then made a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals before an injury to Trae Young derailed them.

    In 2021-22, Young—who has never been lacking for confidence—should be empowered by that playoff success and a still-developing supporting cast.

    With Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic squarely in their primes, and John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish still approaching theirs, there's reason to believe internal progress alone will make this team better.

    Collins is a dynamic inside-out offensive threat, but he can still get better on defense. Huerter still has another level to get to in terms playmaking and consistency with his jumper. Reddish has shown flashes of three-and-D upside, but they've been few and far between.

    If one or two of those developments happen this season, the Hawks will be a real threat to go as far as they did last season.

    Title Odds: +4000

7. Denver Nuggets

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    It would be difficult to see any team missing its second-best player as a legitimate title contender. That's probably the case for the Denver Nuggets sans Jamal Murray, who's recovering from a torn ACL.

    But Denver is in a unique situation. It has the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic, and another potential star on the roster who fits perfectly next to him and seems poised for a breakout.

    After the All-Star break last season, Michael Porter Jr. averaged 22.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.1 threes while shooting 46.4 percent from deep. That pulled his career marks to 2.0 threes with a 43.9 three-point percentage.

    Stephen Curry is the only other player in NBA history to average two-plus threes per game with a three-point percentage that high through his age-22 season.

    On offense, the Nuggets have a 6'10" Klay Thompson who knows how to find the open spots on the floor, make himself available to playmakers and convert catch-and-shoot opportunities with devastating efficiency.

    Spending all (or most) of 2021-22 as the second option will expedite MPJ's development and give Jokic a reliable target to distribute to.

    Title Odds: +2500

6. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Ben Simmons saga makes the Philadelphia 76ers one of the more difficult teams to peg for 2021-22.

    If he's available and engaged, the Sixers will be one of the best teams in the league right out of the gate. Last season, when Simmons and Joel Embiid shared the floor, Philly was plus-15.9 points per 100 possessions.

    If the 6'11" point guard goes into self-sabotage mode in an effort to force a trade, a la James Harden with the Houston Rockets in 2020-21, it could be a different story.

    Such an approach likely wouldn't have the same effect for Simmons, though. He's coming off a trade-value-nuking postseason and is under contract for four more years. Harden was a perennial MVP candidate.

    The best way for Simmons to rehab his trade value would be to lock in on both ends of the floor, dominate as a perimeter defender and playmaker, and remind the league what a unique talent he is.

    Title Odds: +2000

5. Phoenix Suns

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    The Phoenix Suns played the Los Angeles Lakers without Anthony Davis, the Denver Nuggets without Jamal Murray and the Los Angeles Clippers without Kawhi Leonard on their way to the 2021 NBA Finals.

    That fortuitous path has caused many to doubt the legitimacy of their Finals appearance, but that shouldn't neutralize the confidence boost that a deep playoff run can produce.

    Chris Paul is a year closer to 40, but Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson should all still be developing. Knowing you can make it to the game's biggest stage could accelerate their development.

    Even incremental improvements from those four should make the Suns better, though that doesn't necessarily put them in the driver's seat to win the West.

    Title Odds: +1500

4. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    It's fair to dismiss the Los Angeles Lakers' 0-6 preseason record. Over the last several years, LeBron James has been known to coast through the regular season. Why would he, Russell Westbrook or Anthony Davis care all that much about exhibition games that count toward nothing?

    At most, it's probably an indication that it will take some time for the new Big Three to jell with each other and the Lakers' veteran supporting cast. 

    Westbrook is used to dominating the ball, as is LeBron. Neither has spent much time as a floor spacer for someone like himself.

    There's plenty of precedent for LeBron's superteams needing time to adjust, too. The Heatles took more than a year. The 2014-15 Cavs started 5-7. Both groups figured it out eventually.

    At worst, this preseason is a call back to the 2012-13 Lakers squad that went 0-8 before the real games started. In similar fashion to the 2021-22 roster, that Lakers team added huge names in the offseason. Bringing in huge names like Steve Nash and Dwight Howard led to the infamous "Now this is going to be fun..." Sports Illustrated cover.

    That group never came together. Will this year's Lakers squad follow suit?

    Title Odds: +400

3. Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    If these rankings were about which teams have the best shot at winning the 2022 championship, the Utah Jazz would probably be below the Lakers. Too many playoff flameouts and a little less star power at the top of the roster makes it harder to pick Utah to win it all.

    However, the Jazz are a regular-season juggernaut with loads of continuity. They had the best record in the league in 2020-21. And since 2015-16, Rudy Gobert's first season as the full-time starting 5, they have the league's best defensive rating by far.

    With Gobert's rim protection as the anchor on defense and his screen-setting and rim-rolling as the fulcrum on the other end, the Jazz will pile up plenty of regular-season wins. However, they'll ultimately be judged on playoff successes or failures.

    Utah fans may rightfully point out postseason injuries to Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell last year, but it's impossible to explain away the implosion of the perimeter defense against a Kawhi-less Clippers squad in the second round.

    Title Odds: +1400

2. Brooklyn Nets

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    Whether Kyrie Irving plays or not, the Brooklyn Nets are very real title contenders.

    Last postseason, with Irving out and James Harden playing on one leg, Brooklyn was literally within inches of ending the Bucks' season in the second round. If Kevin Durant and Harden are healthy, it's hard to imagine anyone beating the Nets in four out of seven games.

    Durant and Harden are fourth and fifth, respectively, in career offensive box plus/minus, trailing only Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Stephen Curry. And they're surrounded by a supporting cast that includes Joe Harris, Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, Nic Claxton and James Johnson.

    The Nets will have defensive issues against plenty of opponents, but there aren't many teams around the league who'll keep up in shootouts with them.

    Title Odds: +250

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Uncertainty around Kyrie Irving's status makes the Milwaukee Bucks a relatively easy pick for the top spot in this season's opening power rankings.

    All of the most important pieces from the title run are back (unless you want to include P.J. Tucker in that group). Donte DiVincenzo, who missed the playoffs with an injury, will also return to the lineup.

    Like Utah, Milwaukee boasts loads of continuity and regular-season success over the last several years. The difference is that the Bucks validated theirs with a title run.

    The Bucks also have an all-time great at or near the peak of his powers. Giannis Antetokounmpo already has two MVPs, a Defensive Player of the Year and a Finals MVP, and now he knows he can reach the mountaintop.

    The self-actualization he achieved in 2021 could make him even more dangerous as he enters his prime.

    Title Odds: +650


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