Welcome to my annual preseason power rankings, in which I slot all 30 teams into tiers. For each team, we’ll look at a topic, theme, or specific player that stands out to me. We’re starting today with the teams that’ll likely land in the draft lottery. Stay tuned for Part 2 on Monday, which will look at teams fighting for the playoffs. Then on Tuesday, I’ll look at the teams with the best chances to win the NBA Finals. Here we go.
30. New York Knicks
Above all else, New York must prioritize changing its perception around the league as a laughing stock and become known as a potential destination. That’s easier said than done, as Knicks fans know better than anybody. But new team president Leon Rose and the revamped Knicks front office have so far resisted committing the sins of past regimes. Instead, the Knicks are focusing on a youthful group headlined by Obi Toppin, RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and Kevin Knox. (And yes, there’s still hope for Frank Ntilikina.) Inexperienced teams usually don’t win many games, and the Knicks will certainly lose plenty, but New York can still build a brighter future by investing in development, building a culture, and simply competing hard.
It’s a good year to lose a lot of games anyway, since the 2021 draft class should feature multiple potential stars, with Oklahoma State playmaker Cade Cunningham being the current favorite to go no. 1. A strong class means that high picks will carry immense trade value, so the Knicks would have options come next offseason. Most other big-market teams already have superstars or lack the flexibility to make significant moves, which leaves the Knicks in good position if a star wants to play on a big stage. But they must have something to offer aside from the bright lights of New York City, just like the Clippers and Lakers did by developing a group of talented young players in the seasons prior to acquiring their current stars. It’s time for the Knicks to work hard to change who they are. If they manage it, soon enough being the Knicks won’t carry a negative connotation.
29. Oklahoma City Thunder
Now that Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder are gone, the Thunder will find out what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is capable of. Last season, Gilgeous-Alexander played only 135 minutes without Paul or Schröder on the floor, during which he averaged 23.8 points with 7.7 assists. But his true shooting percentage plummeted from 57 percent with one or both of them on the court to only 49 percent. How he performs as a scorer will determine whether Oklahoma City exceeds expectations or finds itself near the bottom of the standings.
As mentioned in regard to the Knicks, it’s good to have a high pick in 2021. Even if Al Horford finds himself again and George Hill turns back the clock, this roster is the worst in the loaded Western Conference. All the Thunder’s focus should be on SGA and their other young players—Aleksej Pokusevski, Theo Maledon, Darius Bazley, and Lu Dort, among others. The Thunder are building for the future, and the progress of these young guys matters far more than the win column.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers had the worst record and net rating in the East last season, and they did nothing to dramatically improve. But another high draft pick in a strong draft class isn’t so bad when the existing talent in Cleveland is pretty solid. Collin Sexton averaged 24 points per game on a 59.4 true shooting percentage after New Year’s Day, as my colleague Dan Devine noted. Can he carry that proficiency over to this season? And will his backcourt partner, Darius Garland, become a more consistent offensive presence? Garland was recovering from a knee injury as a rookie but still looked like an effective spark plug.
Sexton and Garland won’t ever be a perfect backcourt pairing. They’re both small—standing at 6-foot-1 and weighing about 190 pounds—and offenses pick on short dudes. Still, they have the makings of a dynamic duo that could heighten its upside with the proper supporting cast. Cleveland seems to have the right idea, surrounding them with long athletes—Kevin Porter Jr. was selected late in the first round last season, then Isaac Okoro was picked in last month’s draft and should immediately be an impactful defender.
It’s easy to get distracted by a starting frontcourt of Kevin Love and Andre Drummond, two veterans that make for an odd pairing. But their presence shouldn’t diminish the abilities of the younger players on the roster. The truth is, there’s something nice brewing in Cleveland.
East Play-in Contenders
27. Chicago Bulls
Coby White is slowing down for the better. As a college freshman at North Carolina and as a rookie with the Bulls, White often played at one speed and didn’t know how to change gears. Such a fast-paced style led to some exhilarating moments, but many face-palm-inducing ones as well. This preseason, White has used more change of pace and hesitations to generate baskets.
He looks like a veteran point guard in the clips above! The Bulls have lots of young talent. Some of it will stick long term, and some of it will inevitably be dealt. But if White’s development is for real, he’ll firmly fit into the former category as a centerpiece of Chicago’s rebuild.
26. Orlando Magic
Chuma Okeke has been out of sight, out of mind this past year after a torn ACL ended his rookie season before it even began. But his name shouldn’t be forgotten, especially now that he’s back and ready to play in his first NBA campaign. The league will see a 6-foot-8 forward who impacts winning, something the Magic desperately need. Okeke’s talents have already been utilized well in the preseason: They’ve run offense through him on the elbows, an area of the floor that’ll allow him to shoot, attack off the dribble, or find a cutter like he does in the play below:
Okeke is the type of player who won’t make it onto too many highlight reels, but he is good enough to make the Magic front office question who they actually want to keep around long term. If Okeke excels, their crowded frontcourt rotation will begin to overflow. Could Aaron Gordon become available? What would that mean for Mo Bamba? Or would Nikola Vucevic, their best player, turn into their best trade asset? Okeke could be the player who sets off Orlando’s dominoes.
25. Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin dealt with knee injuries last season that ruined his production and ultimately forced him to shut it down, but he was still one of the game’s best players when we last saw him healthy, in 2018-19. Can Griffin get back to being that player again? If he does, it will open up many possibilities for the Pistons. Most immediately, it’d put Detroit in the playoff conversation in the East if Griffin is once again dropping 25 points, seven rebounds, and five assists every single night. Though you won’t see him throwing down thunderous dunks anymore, Griffin is a jumbo-sized playmaker who can operate anywhere on the court, and he’s even developed a reliable 3-point jumper. That version of Griffin could still offer a lot to a team.
But the Pistons have invested quite a lot in younger players, especially at Griffin’s position, by signing Jerami Grant and drafting Isaiah Stewart. If Griffin excels again, he’d become a trade option that could appeal to a long list of contenders. There aren’t many stars potentially available in trades right now aside from Rockets guard James Harden, and the 2021 free-agent class is drying up thanks to all the recent re-signings. Griffin has a player option for the 2021-22 season worth $39 million, so he’d be a short-term bet for any franchise with championship aspirations. If Griffin gets back to being himself this season, the Pistons should cash in.
24. Charlotte Hornets
LaMelo Ball is already one of the world’s best passers, but in order to become one of the world’s best players he needs to be a threat to score from the perimeter. That will take time. But it’s encouraging to see him taking a repeatable jump shot with his feet set this preseason:
Ball had issues with his mechanics throughout his youth, with a wild release. He’d often flail his feet, which might be a cause of his inconsistency. But last year during the latter half of his season playing internationally with Illawarra, he began to shoot more of a controlled jumper, which led to better results. The Ringer’s J. Kyle Mann tracked all of Ball’s jumpers and found he hit 37 percent of his 3s when shooting a set jumper compared to only 25 percent on all other attempts. The results are encouraging, and his shot simply looks better. Now with Charlotte, we’ll get a full season of Ball in action to find out how good of a shooter he is—but no matter what, he will be fun.
23. Sacramento Kings
De’Aaron Fox needs to step up. Let’s be totally honest here about his game: He scored 0.9 points per play in the half court last season, which ranked in the 37th percentile of all NBA players. He’s gotten much better at getting into the teeth of the defense to finish or draw fouls, but he’s still limited away from the rim. Fox shot only 34.7 percent outside of the paint, a poor number that has barely improved from his 33.9 percent mark as a rookie.
Fox is only 22 and certainly one of the more impressive young guards in the league, but this is the final season of his rookie contract before his max deal kicks in for the 2021-22 season. He brings more to the game than just points, but considering his high-usage role, he needs to be significantly better for the Kings to be a playoff team this season or any time in the near future. Soon enough, Fox will go from a promising young player to someone not living up to their billing—unless he makes a scoring leap.
22. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are facing a crossroads, and they can use this season to determine what path they want to go down and who they want coming with them. Can Dejounte Murray learn how to run an offense? (So far this preseason, the answer is still no.) Or will Derrick White remain the steadier option at point guard? Can Lonnie Walker IV find any level of consistency? Can Devin Vassell or Keldon Johnson pop on offense? The Spurs have lots of young talent to take them into the 2020s, but now it’s a matter of figuring out who the centerpieces are.
One issue is playing time, since the Spurs have too many old dudes earning heavy minutes for a team that should be focused on development. DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, and Patty Mills are all in their 30s and will all be unrestricted free agents next offseason; perhaps some of them could be flipped ahead of the trade deadline to recoup some value and open minutes for some of their young players. That assumes there would be teams interested in acquiring DeRozan or Aldridge as a rental, but in the playoff race, teams always get needy.
21. Minnesota Timberwolves
It’s too soon for the Wolves to be a playoff team in the loaded West. They’re the youngest team in the entire league, and have limited experience playing with each other. Only Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie have been with the team for more than one season. Three of their best players—Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley—played a grand total of one game together last season. Young teams usually aren’t good, and it will take time for Minnesota to get acclimated with each other.
What’s important for the Timberwolves is progress. Towns needs to be better on defense. Russell needs to start trying to defend. Anthony Edwards, the no. 1 pick in the draft, needs to be like a sponge and take in everything he can to improve his shot selection, decision-making, and effort. The pieces in Minnesota make sense together in theory, but it will take time for it to work in reality.