Ranking the Best 2021-22 NBA League Pass Teams

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 19, 2021

Ranking the Best 2021-22 NBA League Pass Teams

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Multiple sources told Bleacher Report our entire reader base would be soul-squashingly gutted if they didn't receive an NBA League Pass rankings from a blogperson nobody ahead of the 2021-22 regular season.

    Well, we're cutting it pretty close, but we made it. Our 2021-22 NBA League Pass rankings are in—fresh, never frozen—and you are now free to love, loathe and laugh at them accordingly.

    Let us not hide behind the guise of absolution. These rankings are not gospel. They represent the opinion of one person—this person—and are not assembled through exact science.

    This is, essentially, a pecking order of teams with the most reasons to tune in on a regular basis. Pure and utter watchability topped the list of factors that shaped the hierarchy, but a potpourri of other criteria helped mold the final product: the likelihood of lineup experimentation, breakout potential, individual play styles, highlight-reel probabilities, etc.

    Bizarre storylines did not make the cut. The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers have my apologies.

    The number of national television appearances each team currently has scheduled is not part of the calculus, either. If it's any consolation—spoiler alert—none of the top-10 national-TV staples finished higher than fifth. This exercise isn't meant to be a referendum on the access to each squad. It's simply the ones we are (read: I am) most interested to see this season.

Tough Exclusions

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    Brooklyn Nets

    Kyrie Irving's absence doesn't much hurt the Nets, though their case definitely misses his on-court flair. Kevin Durant might be the best basketball player in the world. James Harden could lead the league in assists. Head coach Steve Nash is willing to experiment. Brooklyn plays fast for being so star-heavy.

    Something just feels...off. And it's not just Kyrie's status within the team. The Nets have a glut of bigs, not enough secondary wings and are chief among candidates who won't approach the regular season with the utmost seriousness. For what it's worth, they landed at No. 11. Their brilliance isn't formulaic.


    Dallas Mavericks

    Luka Doncic is a League Pass monopoly all by himself, but trust the aesthetics, effectiveness and sensibilities of an offense implemented by head coach Jason Kidd at your own risk.


    Houston Rockets

    Sign me all the way up for a backcourt weaponized by Kevin Porter Jr.-at-point guard and Jalen Green. The Rockets could favor an unequivocally chaotic style of basketball if they're willing to play all the kids heavily.

    My question: How much will they actually do that? Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher will be the barometer. If Daniel Theis and D.J. Augustin and Eric Gordon are still getting more minutes than them at the halfway point, Houston will be whiffing on its entertainment-value peak.


    New Orleans Pelicans

    Tell me how many games Zion Williamson plays following his recovery from right foot surgery. Shoot—just ballpark his return from injury, in the form of any timeline at all.

    Then we'll talk.


    New York Knicks

    Potential abounds here.

    Kemba Walker could author a renaissance. RJ Barrett seems primed for another leap at both ends. New York is built to play two small guards at once. Will they try three? Or four? Julius Randle step-backs are fun. Do we see Obi Toppin get run as the 5?

    Too much is up in the air. Head coach Tom Thibodeau tends to prioritize playing veterans within an offense that grinds the pace down to a crawl-across-broken-glass.


    Portland Trail Blazers

    I can already feel and see my hairline receding from inevitably watching the Blazers labor through too many unnecessarily close-calls in the fourth quarter only to be rescued 72 to 99 percent of the time by Damian Lillard. They'll demand reconsideration if they parlay their three-guard leanings into four-guard anarchy with Anfernee Simons and if they infuse more ball and body movement into the overall offense.

10-6: Jazz, Bulls, Kings, Bucks, Suns

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    10. Utah Jazz

    This one stings. The Jazz are a pick-and-roll, drive-and-kick machine that will churn out exciting passes (Joe Ingles) and off-the-dribble heat checks (Jordan Clarkson, Donovan Mitchell). Rudy Gobert's defense. That's it. That's the sentence. Bojan Bogdanovic is good for one to seven randomized Defensive Player of the Year performances every year.

    Reliability works against the Jazz. They are too much of a known quantity. I like a little more unpredictability, if not an outright reckless danger, in my regular watches. Maybe they downsize during non-Gobert minutes. That could help. Morbid curiosity will come into play if they start posting Gobert up in an attempt to punish squads that go micro against them. They sneak into the 10-spot.


    9. Chicago Bulls

    Individual talent fuels the Bulls' top-10 inclusion. Lonzo Ball's jumper is for real, and he's a playmaking visionary on the break. DeMar DeRozan is among the most manipulative pick-and-roll maestros alive. Zach LaVine hits unfathomably difficult jumpers like they're layups. Javonte Green is 6'4" and defends like he's 6'9". Alex Caruso is a defensive incendiary device who might scoot into the lane just enough to confound opponents. Patrick Williams is a resident try-hard. Nikola Vucevic is everyone's least favorite All-Star.

    More than anything, the Bulls' variance outcomes of looms. The angles coming out of training camp and preseason are wide and conflicting. Will they play fast? Put the ball in Lonzo's hands more? Will they yank one of their offensive studs (DeRozan or Vooch) in crunch time? What the heck is this backup center situation? Is Tony Bradley about to become a thing or will they lean small? Will the defense be bad? Aggressively bad? Surprisingly not actually bad? Chicago is a puzzle.


    8. Sacramento Kings

    Hypocrite alert. Including a team coached by the stylistically repressive Luke Walton after displacing a Mavericks squad in part because they're helmed by Jason Kidd is all kinds of inconsistent. Whatever. The Kings' roster isn't magnetic because of any one player.

    De'Aaron Fox is the primary draw. He has developed into both the calm and the storm, a deliriously fast star now equipped to slow things down and let different opportunities develop. I believe in his step-back three.

    Tyrese Haliburton is a pure joy to watch. He is omnipresent in passing lanes, crafty with his assists and more surgical with the ball than credited. Davion Mitchell swallows souls on defense. Richaun Holmes' push shot is gorgeous, as is his willingness and ability to run the floor. Buddy Hield is both a sniper and knows he's forever available via trade. Walton might have no choice but to give us a four-guard lineup. The Kings are fast even when they're slow, so picture what they'll be if they're not prevented from actually playing fast.


    7. Milwaukee Bucks

    Milwaukee finished a few spots lower during my initial run-through. We all make mistakes.

    No team outside of Toronto wants to live in transition more. Giannis Antetokounmpo remains a highlight factory and, if preseason is any indication, might now carry himself with the type of championship swagger that culminates in his taking and making off-the-dribble jumpers Ben Simmons didn't even know existed.

    Khris Middleton is a killer. Jrue Holiday will envelop anyone head coach Mike Budenzholer asks him to defend. Brook Lopez's occasional ultra-long three, post-up and slow-motion drives are a guilty pleasure. A healthy Donte DiVincenzo is so confident it verges on arrogance. Bobby Portis might have flipped a switch in the postseason. Does Semi Ojeleye get his own bobblehead night? Thanasis Antetokounmpo is a shot of defensive adrenaline. This team is basketball with a jetpack. 


    6. Phoenix Suns

    Chris Paul will be out for blood until the end of time. Devin Booker is one of the coldest shot-makers and passers alive and moves away from the ball more than you think. Mikal Bridges should get more off-the-bounce responsibility. Cameron Johnson dabbled in difficult jumpers during preseason.

    Cameron Payne is an electric current in bodily form. JaVale McGee is going to catch lobs and swat shots into the 14th row. Head coach Monty Williams was audacious enough to roll without a center at times last year. Does he try it again?

    Deandre Ayton took a leap during the 2021 playoffs. How does he fare this year after not getting an extension and seeing Bridges and Landry Shamet receiving their own? And let's not forget about adventuresome Jae Crowder moments.

5. Golden State Warriors

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    Sticking a Stephen Curry-powered team outside the top five is actually illegal. So, the Golden State Warriors land here.

    Steph is the singularly most watchable force in basketball. His range is infinite yet somehow eclipsed by his confidence. He makes circus layups look routine. His floater is buttery. His handles are artful murder.

    The work he'll put in away from the ball is comparably alluring. He will screen. He will relocate. He will sprint his butt off. You can see defenses bend and break in real-time just by reacting to the very idea of Stephen Curry. He is an efficient spectacle—one of the greatest ever.

    That is just part, albeit a huge part, of the Warriors' case. They feel like a team about to channel their inner-fun again.

    Klay Thompson will eventually come back. Jordan Poole has drawn half-serious CJ McCollum comparisons since the back end of last year. Klay will eventually come back. Steve Kerr wants Draymond Green to shoot more. Green remains a playmaking delight going downhill and in transition. Klay will eventually come back.

    Golden State operated at a blurry pace last year. Only two teams had a shorter average possession time, per Inpredictable. The Warriors aren't assembled to be as haphazard but can still function at breakneck speeds. Klay will eventually come back. A healthy James Wiseman should get more pick-and-roll usage under this version of Kerr.

    Andre Iguodala is a Warrior again. Otto Porter Jr. might be in shape again. How much floor time will rookies Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga get? Nemanja Bjelica might have the license to put the ball on the floor if he cracks the regular rotation. The defense is so feisty-looking it might (should?) lead the league in opponent turnover percentage. Klay will eventually come back.

    I rest my case.

4. Denver Nuggets

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    Slotting the Denver Nuggets this high when we have no idea when or if Jamal Murray will return from his torn left ACL is something of a risk. Except, then you remember Nikola Jokic exists, and then everything's okay.
    Tracking the reigning MVP's number of assists is officially boring. Count the number of brain-bending passes he attempts each game. There are always a few and oftentimes many. No-look doozies, one-handed lasers, full-court masterpieces—Jokic's playmaking armory is endlessly creative.

    His vision and urge to pass also drives up the watchability of everyone around him. Players cut harder and more frequently, running their behinds off in transition, knowing he can find them on a whim. The Nuggets don't play exceptionally fast in a conventional sense. Jokic mandates a more deliberate pace. His decision-making and their overarching play-finishing is anything but. Denver's offense has the chance to lead the league in singularly viral moments.

    Watching Michael Porter Jr. take on an even bigger role without Murray is worth the price of admission. He is one of the smoothest shooters alive. What will he look like amid a higher on-ball workload?

    Bones Hyland nudges up the Nuggets' spot by a not-insignificant margin. He is a contortionist around the basket, a better passer than expected and already looks comfortable dribbling and side-stepping into jumpers. Will he play? I think he'll play. Let's assume he plays.

    Facundo Campazzo is a defensive heat check. Aaron Gordon cannot find a better offensive fit yet could still be good for a handful of rogue face-ups and post-ups per game. Denver can play smallish without Jokic on the floor, turning to Jeff Green and JaMychal Green to captain the second unit's frontline. Healthy Will Barton is a subtly polarizing on-ball player. This team's entertainment value will endure the absence of Murray.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Maybe this is an over-correction borne from the number of people who just assume the Toronto Raptors won't be good. They should be good. And they should stay good unless they blow it up.

    Figuring out how they'll consistently generate buckets in the half-court is pretty tough. It's also part of the intrigue. Fred VanVleet has the keys to the offense. Dibs on riding shotgun. OG Anunoby is dribbling into jumpers. Pascal Siakam will soon return and bring his spins-to-somewhere with him.

    Last year's Raptors squad ranked fourth in the share of their offensive possessions that came on the break. This season's group should place first. I'm not sure they'll actually spend a single possession in the half-court. (Kidding...mostly.)

    Rookie Scottie Barnes is going to play and throw some mind-melting passes and emanate good vibes while he's at it. Chris Boucher will continue blocking jumpers, for better or worse. Precious Achiuwa and Yuta Watanabe will become trendy basketball-nerd favorites.

    This defense should be radically suffocating. Toronto has more players standing between 6'7" and 6'9" than any team in league history (probably) and doesn't have anyone 6'10" or taller. Head coach Nick Nurse is innovative. He should get kinky with the Raptors' lineups. The experience may not always be smooth or pretty, but it'll be frantic as hell.

2 . Charlotte Hornets

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    LaMelo Ball is, of course, the guiding force that lands the Charlotte Hornets so high. His decision-making defies logic—in a great way. He tosses passes that will rob you of your breath, with the nonchalance of someone aimlessly scrolling through Teen Vogue as they go on Minute No. 63 in their dentist's waiting room. He looks stronger; his jaunts inside the arc should be more unpredictable as a result.

    Charlotte's roster is not without intrigue beyond LaMelo. On the contrary, this team is built in the image of one trying to juice its League Pass viewership.

    The Hornets have basically decided to punt on traditional center play. They have Mason Plumlee and then, assuming they don't prominently feature Kai Jones or Vernon Carey Jr., pocket-sized lineups.

    It doesn't matter whether P.J. Washington can—or should be forced to—hold up at the 5. The resulting combinations are five-out with an addiction to getting out in transition. Adding Kelly Oubre Jr. to this setup is like an overload of entertainment.

    Imagine how fast the Hornets will play with a prospective lineup of LaMelo, Oubre, Washington, Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier. I am. And I need to fan myself.

    Ish Smith dials up the incidental-blooper quota. James Bouknight will take shots and make passes that tempt you to buy James Bouknight stock if the Hornets play him. Bridges is still playing Super Smash Bros. whenever he lifts off but has added other layers to his game. That dude uncorked step-back threes last year. (Aside: Not signing him to an extension is going to cost Charlotte later.)

    That the Hornets remain a collective unknown helps their case even more. The defense didn't completely wilt with Washington and Bridges manning the frontline last year. What if that happens again? And what if Gordon Hayward stays healthy? And what if Terry Rozier stays nuclear from downtown? And LaMelo makes the leap? Is this a play-in team? Better? Much worse?

    Personally, I have the Hornets missing the playoffs. There seems to be a rush to coronate. They need another year to marinate and flesh out the roster. Maybe I'm wrong. Wherever they end up this season, though, the journey to getting there will be caps-lock, bold-face, italics F-U-N.

1. Atlanta Hawks

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    Trae Young is one of the most inarguably watchable players in the league. His passes are magic. His shot selection vacillates between poetic and unconscious and poetically unconscious.

    Worrying about how he'll be impacted by the NBA's crackdown on freedom of movement is for suckers. He'll be fine. And he likes playing the villain. Ask Knicks fans.

    Clint Capela and John Collins might be the Association's best lob-catching duo. Collins has rounded out his game in eminently watchable fashion. He finds places to slip and stand when he can't be the primary screener and roller on offense. His one-on-one defense made strides last year.

    This wing rotation is obnoxiously deep and intriguing. De'Andre Hunter did a lot of wet work off the dribble before getting injured last year. Cam Reddish looked ultra-confident launching off-the-bounce triples in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Kevin Huerter will move away from the ball like whoa and disarm anyone who thinks he can't dribble.

    Bogdan Bogdanovic is crafty. Danilo Gallinari is a balletic bull. Lou Williams' self-belief is aspirational. The Trae-less minutes should be equal parts fun and not hopeless this year. That Jalen Johnson guy can pass. Will Atlanta Hawks head coach play Nate McMillan play him? And will he perhaps see run at the 5?

    Atlanta is deep and tantalizing and really good and potentially ready for another jump and, therefore, must-must-must-watch.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.


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