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Power Rankings, Part 2: Play-in Contenders, Playoff Locks, and the Rockets

Can Russell Westbrook and Zion Williamson power the Wizards and Pelicans into the playoffs? Will Solo Steph be unleashed in Golden State? And what the hell will happen in Houston? 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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. Last week, we looked at teams that’ll likely land in the draft lottery, and on Tuesday, we’ll break down the teams with the best chances to win the NBA Finals. But first, let’s detail the teams fighting for the playoffs. Here we go.

Play-in Tournament Contenders

20. Atlanta Hawks

Points shouldn’t be a problem for the Hawks. Trae Young is one of the game’s greatest shot creators, and Atlanta is loaded with tons of new weapons such as Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Clint Capela; the latter was acquired last season but didn’t appear in a game. Young will still handle the ball more often than most players despite now sharing the floor with teammates who can also generate offense. But the new talent around Young will allow him to showcase other dimensions of his game—if he buys into playing off others by running off screens and handoffs. Young could be so spectacular that he’ll earn himself an All-NBA spot and the Hawks a spot in the playoffs.

The big question is whether the Hawks will actually be good. This is still a relatively young and inexperienced team that doesn’t have many players who play lockdown defense, though Cam Reddish could find himself on that list someday. The roster lacks continuity because of the amount of new additions. It shouldn’t surprise anybody if they get off to a rough start, but it also shouldn’t surprise anybody if they finish strong after they jell as a team, given how much talent they have.

Atlanta is my ninth-ranked Eastern Conference team, so in a normal season, I’d have them just narrowly missing the playoffs. But this season will be different. The NBA installed a play-in tournament that gives teams that finish ninth and 10th in each conference a chance to make the playoffs if they win two games—one against each other, and one against the loser of the teams that finished seventh and eighth. This is a wise decision by the league precisely because of teams like the Hawks. If more teams have hope, that’s good for fans and business. So get strapped in to watch the Hawks, it’s about to get wild.

19. Washington Wizards

All eyes will be on Russell Westbrook this season, which means more people will also be watching Bradley Beal than they did last season when the Wizards went 25-47. What they missed during that disappointing season without John Wall was Beal developing into a scorer who can dissect defenses from every spot on the floor. He averaged more than 30 points with a 57.9 true shooting percentage, which is an outrageously efficient season considering his high usage. Beal, who is only 27 years old, spent all offseason extending his shooting range, so he could return even better.

Before Beal was an excellent on-ball scorer, he thrived off-ball by using movement, screens, and handoffs. Westbrook’s playmaking should help revive those parts of Beal’s game, and therefore create a more balanced offensive diet for Beal. Westbrook is also a flat-out better player than Wall, especially considering Wall is coming off a ruptured Achilles, so this pairing should be an upgrade for Beal’s personal production and for the team’s win column.

With one of the best backcourts in basketball, the Wizards can compete for the playoffs today while also developing young players like Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura, and Troy Brown Jr. Now that Giannis Antetokounmpo is signed long term, Beal is the second-hottest name on the trade market behind James Harden. Beal has only two guaranteed seasons remaining on his contract. Maybe by the end of the season, the Wizards will resemble a team nearing contention, and Beal’s future in Washington will seem much more certain.

18. Memphis Grizzlies

Chris Vernon, my cohost of The Mismatch and a Grizzlies homer, said on our most recent episode that he’s expecting Ja Morant to take a big leap like Luka Doncic did last season. Vernon’s point was that Morant is about to go from “good young player” to “star.” If Morant’s preseason play is any indication, Vernon might be right.

Morant averaged 24.5 points, 13.6 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per 36 minutes in four preseason games, and looked like an even more advanced playmaker than he was as a rookie. Morant manipulated defenses with movement and gaze, and shredded them with stop-and-go moves and pure speed to generate baskets. These performances came in exhibition games against Minnesota and Atlanta, two of the worst defenses in the league, but Morant seems to be seeing the game like a veteran would.

Nonetheless, at only 21 years old, Morant is ahead of the curve, and he leads an impressive roster filled with talented young players from Jaren Jackson Jr. to Brandon Clarke to Desmond Bane (who has one of the best names in all of sports). The Grizzlies aren’t ready to make a deep playoff run, but this season will show whether they’re on their way to that level. If that happens, you can expect a lot of Grizzlies talk on The Mismatch this season—subscribe now!

17. Portland Trail Blazers

Defense could once again cause the Trail Blazers to underwhelm. After finishing ahead of only the Hawks, Wizards, and Cavaliers in the defensive rankings last season, Portland added Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. to help them get stops. But Jones Jr. played only sparingly for the Heat during their Finals run because of his fouling habits and inconsistencies defending (along with his limited offense). Covington excelled as a small-ball big with Houston because his size gives him the versatility to defend larger players, and he’s a tremendous off-ball presence, as evidenced by his deflections and sturdy rim protection. But he’s not an on-ball stopper against quicker wings and guards, as evidenced by Chris Paul’s willingness to hunt him on switches in Houston’s first-round series against Oklahoma City. Containing players as good as Paul is precisely what the Blazers need to do to get through the West.

Maybe things would be different if Jusuf Nurkic was the same enforcer that he was before a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula ended his 2018-19 season. Nurkic was a turnstile upon returning to the floor in the bubble, and this preseason he’s still moving like he’s tied to an anchor. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will lead a high-powered Blazers offense, but unless they’re at least average defensively, it won’t be enough to grab one of the top six seeds and a guaranteed playoff spot. Just like last season, the Blazers will probably find themselves in the play-in, and maybe they’ll be good enough to advance again.

16. New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans feel like a team developing an identity. They played with more defensive intensity in the preseason than they did for most of last season, when they finished 21st in defensive rating. Now they have a roster filled with tough guys like guard Eric Bledsoe, one of the game’s best perimeter defenders, and center Steven Adams, who has anchored top-10 defenses in Oklahoma City for four consecutive seasons. New coach Stan Van Gundy brings a hard-nosed mentality, and that mindset could make the Pelicans into a playoff team if Zion Williamson stays healthy and Brandon Ingram continues improving.

Williamson is one of the NBA’s most impactful offensive players. The questions with him are whether he can stay on the court and whether he can make strides on defense. He could be even better thanks to Van Gundy’s system, which has sets that slingshot Zion toward the rim. Ingram emerged as a scoring engine last season and was rightfully named an All-Star; he also won Most Improved Player, but he didn’t make my ballot because he was worse on defense than he was in Los Angeles. Now that he’ll defend more wings rather than larger forwards, he should be better on defense, though his upside will largely depend on his effort.

Williamson and Ingram were top-30 players last season, and they’re primed to rise much higher. As they ascend, the Pelicans will too because of their strong supporting cast, which has a mix of veterans (Adams, Bledsoe, JJ Redick) and young talent (Lonzo Ball, Jaxson Hayes, Josh Hart, and Kira Lewis Jr.). It’s not time yet for the Pelicans to be labeled as contenders, but that they’re even in the playoff conversation in a tough conference is a testament to their talent today and their brighter future.

15. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers could end up better than this ranking, but there’s stiff competition at the top of the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn, Miami, and Philadelphia should all be much better during the regular season. But the Pacers didn’t find any notable upgrades and it’s still unknown whether Victor Oladipo can find his star form.

There still needs to be changes on the court, too. The Pacers heavily pursued Gordon Hayward, who ended up going to the Hornets, and were willing to sign-and-trade center Myles Turner with other pieces to get him. Turner is still with the Pacers, which makes for an awkward frontcourt fit next to Domantas Sabonis. It’s best for the both of them if they are split up—especially Sabonis. Averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, and five assists while playing good defense, like he did last season, is no joke. He was rightfully rewarded as an All-Star, but in order to tap into his All-NBA potential, he’ll probably need to play the 5 so he can thrive with better spacing and more potent scoring options around him.

All this makes the Pacers a team to watch as the trade deadline approaches; they’re already a really good team as is, and they could improve with a few moves and some internal development.

The NBA’s Focus

14. Houston Rockets

Feel free to call me foolish for ranking the Rockets this high when James Harden wants out. But until Harden is traded, there’s no reason to put them lower considering the amount of talent on this roster. Harden and John Wall compose one of the best backcourts in basketball, and Christian Wood was the NBA’s most underrated free agent, a talented big who can score from outside or attack off the dribble. Wood is like Diet Anthony Davis, and he’ll arguably be the most talented big man Harden has ever played with.

Will the additions of Wall and Wood to the existing supporting cast be enough to convince Harden to stay in Houston? Maybe not. Harden appears fixed on leaving, whether it’s through a trade or as soon as he can hit free agency in 2022. But there’s no denying the potential of this roster if the drama fades away.

Playoff Locks

13. Toronto Raptors

Last week, I went on Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto to talk about the Raptors. I figured it would be a conversation about what the Raptors are: a really, really good team with a stingy defense and an adaptable offense, with a young core headlined by Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby. What I didn’t expect was for the hosts, Ben Ennis and JD Bunkis, to bring up the idea of trading Siakam for James Harden. Both of them wanted to do the trade; I was less certain. But the more I analyze it, the more it makes sense for Toronto to chase The Beard.

Siakam is a wonderful talent, only 26 years old, and is just starting a contract worth $34.2 million annually for the next four years. But going from a good young player on a rookie contract to a pricey veteran brings added scrutiny, and Siakam has some notable weaknesses in areas that the Raptors lack overall: shot-creation, at-rim scoring, and playmaking. Those skills are precisely what Harden provides better than most players in the history of basketball. The Raptors were hoping to pursue that kind of player in the summer of 2021 had Giannis hit free agency, but now that ship has sailed. Considering the impact Kawhi Leonard’s on-ball scoring had on the roster, why not take a chance that Harden could also make the Raptors championship contenders?

One trade I like for Toronto is Siakam, Norman Powell, and Terence Davis plus two future first-round picks for Harden and P.J. Tucker; the Raptors would have two of the league’s best defensive forwards in Tucker and Anunoby, plus a lethal backcourt with Harden joining VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. There wouldn’t be a better team in the East. Maybe the Raptors would have better luck in convincing Harden to stay than they did with Kawhi. As is, the Raptors remain a tough out for anyone, but they need to find their missing piece.

12. Utah Jazz

People who think the Jazz shouldn’t have extended Rudy Gobert are off their rocker. Yeah, five years and $205 million is a lot of money. But the Jazz are a borderline contender thanks to their elite defense, and Gobert is the defense. No one is better at protecting the paint than him, and his shortcomings as a perimeter defender are overstated. Gobert isn’t some stiff who can’t move away from the rim; he’s serviceable on switches and hedges. Gobert’s a key reason why the Jazz are set up to compete for top seeds in the West until their veteran supporting cast either gets too old or leaves.

Over the last two seasons, the Jazz outscored opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions with both Gobert and Donovan Mitchell on the floor; and without Gobert and just Mitchell, that number plummets to minus-6.5. Here is the choice Utah had: Extend Gobert and continue being a potential 3- or 4-seed in the West; or burn him by not offering an acceptable deal, risk watching him walk for nothing, and become a team that’s scraping by for a spot in the play-in tournament. In a vacuum, Gobert may be overpaid because of his limited offensive impact as a screener and finisher, but the Jazz aren’t operating in a vacuum. This was an easy decision. Now, we’ll see how far Mitchell can take them.

11. Golden State Warriors

We’re about to find out a lot about Stephen Curry. He’s undeniably one of the greatest players of all time, but now he has a chance to carry a team on his back for the first time in his career. Steve Kerr said last year he won’t turn Curry into James Harden by giving him the ball every play. But we should see Curry take more shots than ever before now that Kevin Durant is long gone and Klay Thompson is out for the season.

Curry will need to handle the bulk of the playmaking; Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre Jr. are at their best playing off others, and the bench players are far worse than past Warriors contenders Curry has led. Curry may need to produce a career-best statistical season to lead the Warriors to a guaranteed playoff spot.

Draymond Green will need to return to form too. The last time we saw Green, he was a shell of his former self, playing uninspired regular-season basketball. But Green needs to bring it regularly for the Warriors to be a stout defensive unit. James Wiseman is promising, but he’s still a rookie who’s not yet seasoned enough to stabilize a defense. If Curry can have another MVP-caliber season, if Green can be worthy of an All-Defensive team nod again, and if the supporting cast is good enough, the Warriors will elevate themselves from a team that’ll make the playoffs but fizzle out to a team that could make a deeper run than anyone is expecting.