Can I be honest with you all for a second? You know how every website in existence publishes regular power rankings of which of the league’s 30 teams seem to be the best, or worst, or Most Extremely 17th at a particular nanosecond in time? Well, that’s always bored me.
Perhaps you are someone whose carefully cultivated personal brand mandates that you experience irrepressible joy in your favorite team moving up three spots and suffer unspeakable anguish in the realization that it has slipped, ineluctably, beneath the Hornets. To you, I say two things. First: Um, hang in there, friend. And second: What if I told you there was a … new way?
What if, instead, we regularly considered which teams seemed most interesting? That’d give us a much broader canvas to use, and many more colors to fill it, as we evaluate and appreciate the ways the game, players, lineups, tactics, and context change and evolve, night to night and week to week. (Also: I think it might be more fun to write.)
As the bulk of the league prepares for tipoff, let’s check in on the five teams I find most compelling at the start of the 2018-19 NBA season:
You’ve likely heard quite a bit in recent weeks—including at this very website—about how Giannis Antetokounmpo might be about to set the world on fire. There’s a good reason for that: After five seasons in which he’s grown from a slender rookie straight out of Greece’s second division into one of the most productive players in the NBA, this could be our first look at just how good, how dominant, how total he can actually be.
Even as he vaulted into the ranks of the league’s elite foundational pieces, Antetokounmpo has been playing with the governor on. He averaged 26.9 points and 4.8 assists per game last season on a team that ranked in the league’s bottom third in 3-point rate and 3-point-shooting percentage. (An aside: The only two-man combo featuring Giannis to log at least 250 minutes and get outscored by a significant margin? Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker. This might help explain why Milwaukee seemed so willing to facilitate Jabari’s homecoming.)
With new head coach Mike Budenholzer instituting a five-out scheme that better spaces the floor with more threatening shooters at every position, and with the Bucks adopting an “Everybody’s gonna shoot it” plan of attack, Giannis will find himself at the controls of the most dangerous offense he’s ever piloted—one that can simultaneously unlock his playmaking game and give him more opportunities to wreak havoc against overmatched individual defenders.
“Every pass feels like the right pass now,” Antetokounmpo recently told Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports. “It’s easy now.”
It’s always dangerous to take too much from the preseason, but the early returns on the Coach Bud revolution sure seem promising. Milwaukee pushed the pace to average nearly nine more offensive possessions per 48 minutes during the exhibition slate than it did last season, took nearly 44 percent of its shots from long distance (up from just under 30 percent in 2017-18), and drilled a crisp 41 percent of those 3s as a team. The result: the league’s most potent preseason offense.
By adding stretch big men like Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez, wing shooters like Pat Connaughton and rookie Donte DiVincenzo—two of several young players who could benefit from playing under the headmaster of Hawks University—and by encouraging his nonshooting bigs to stretch out their games, Budenholzer has changed the geometry of the Bucks offense. He has tilted Milwaukee’s shot profile toward a healthier diet of higher-value looks; he has, as Utah Jazz radio voice David Locke termed it, solved the Bucks’ math problem. Graft that onto an athletic squad that already ranked near the top of the league in how often it pushed in transition and generated points off turnovers, and you’ve got the formula for a lot of easy buckets, a lot of flummoxed defenders … and maybe the kind of eye-popping stat lines that will land Antetokounmpo a hell of a lot higher than last year’s sixth-place finish in MVP voting.
We’ve covered the ongoing saga in the Twin Cities quite a bit here already. But it’d be impossible to make a list of the most interesting teams in the league right now and not include one that the great Britt Robson described on The Athletic as a franchise where everyone involved is “hop-scotching along a spectrum that ranges from pathetic to malicious to indolent.” (Outside of that, though, everything’s great!)
On paper, the Wolves enter the season with a roster good enough to reach the 3-seed in the West, like they did last season before Jimmy Butler tore his meniscus in February. In the fun-house-mirror reality we all share, though, Butler wants to be both traded and feted as the team’s most indispensable player. (Which, in terms of winning basketball games, he may well be.) Fully maxed-out young cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have been publicly cowed by Butler’s machinations, leading elder Wolf Kevin Garnett to suggest that they’ve “got to speak up at some point.” (One presumes this wasn’t what KG had in mind.)
Minnesota looked largely abysmal in the preseason, losing four of its five games, getting outscored by 13.5 points per 100 possessions, and getting blasted by Giannis’s Bucks so decisively that, asked whatever happened to the Wolves’ intensity, a frustrated Towns could only reply, “I really don’t damn know. If you find out, let me know so we can get that done.” Tom Thibodeau’s tacit support of Butler’s strafing has worn out his welcome with at least some segment of the Timberwolves’ fan base, and it appears he’s still not on the same page as owner Glen Taylor, who’s still working to find a Butler trade. While he waits, Butler, days removed from airing out all of Minnesota’s dirty laundry, will apparently be in the Wolves’ lineup for Wednesday’s opener in San Antonio. Butler has made a scout’s-honor promise to be the same dutiful teammate and hard-working leader he always has been, which has been working out great for the Wolves so far.
This is, to put it mildly, extremely weird. I have no idea what will happen next. Butler’s evident comfort with turning into a wrestling heel who revels in the lusty and raucous jeers of the local crowd opens up a whole new world of possibilities. But I know I’ll be tuned into every episode of As the Wolves Turn to find out what does.
Kawhi Leonard isn’t back. Not yet, anyway. In three appearances this preseason, he missed 19 of his 31 field goal attempts, seven of his eight 3-pointers, and 10 of his 25 free throws. But he is back on the court and logging actual get-some-reps minutes in competitive play, which means everything’s on the table for the Raptors, which most certainly wasn’t the case when we last saw them.
You’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten how good Leonard can be. Here’s a reminder:
In 2016-17, his last full season before one lost to lingering right quadriceps tendinopathy and a curious standoff with San Antonio’s brain trust, Leonard averaged 25.5 points per game on 48/38/88 shooting splits; in terms of point production and shot-making efficiency, that put him in the company of prime Larry Bird, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki. He did that while finishing eighth in the NBA in usage rate and earning a spot on the All-Defensive Team. I can’t wait to find out whether that dude’s still around; I imagine many Toronto residents feel the same. (Those who live in San Antonio are probably interested, too, but for the opposite reason.)
Leonard unlocks new universes of possibility for the Raptors and new head coach Nick Nurse, who can now launch lineups with staggering two-way versatility. Good luck guarding or scoring against units that can feature multiple ball handlers, at least three legit shooters, credible screeners everywhere, a big like Pascal Siakam lurking as a lob/dump-off threat, and length, tenacity, and defensive acumen everywhere. The wing rotation can also go six deep—Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and bounce-back hopeful Norman Powell—which should give Toronto the goods to match up with even the switchiest opponent. We’ll see the first true test of that theory Friday, when the Raptors welcome a stacked Boston Celtics team to the newly christened Scotiabank Arena for a potential Eastern Conference finals preview.
Los Angeles Lakers
Duh. It’s pretty hard to argue with the pull of a Lakers team that now stars LeBron James, the kind of intrigue magnet who warps entire media coverage models.
Last season’s Lakers—chock full of Kuzmania, the fits-and-starts progress of Brandon Ingram, the emergence of Josh Hart, and the sturm und drang surrounding Lonzo Ball—were already a pretty fun and interesting bunch. Add to that perhaps the greatest player of all time chopping it up with his young dudes about Young Dolph and you get an awfully captivating mystery box of a team. (And we haven’t even talked about JaVale, Lance, Rondo, and SuperCoolBeas yet.)
Some see a 55-win juggernaut in the making; others see a .500-ish team that will struggle to crack the top eight. The answer will depend on several factors: how effectively L.A. can embody team president Magic Johnson’s “We want to run” ethos (the Lakers’ 23.8 fast-break points per game led all NBA teams during preseason play); how well all the complementary ball handlers and playmakers that Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka brought in to flank James can shoot the ball off his service (they ranked 14th in effective field goal percentage and 11th in true shooting percentage); and how formidable a defense Luke Walton can marshal from a collection of sometimes-scattered youth, vets whose best defensive days might be behind them, and one viable shot-blocker in JaVale McGee. The Lakers might have to win a lot of shoot-outs this season … which, if you’re looking for something fun to watch in the wee hours of an East Coast morning, doesn’t sound half-bad. But if things aren’t clicking early with the pace-and-non-LeBron-playmaking approach, will James really stay the course with Magic’s plan, or will the King feel compelled to more forcefully take the reins?
New Orleans Pelicans
Most of the team that emerged after DeMarcus Cousins went down last season—the one that went 20-11 with the NBA’s eighth-best net rating after trading for Nikola Mirotic, the one that played at the league’s most blistering pace over the final two months of the season, the one that savate-kicked the Blazers in the face in the first round—remains, led by all-everything metahuman Anthony Davis. One very important piece of it isn’t, though.
I’m curious to see how New Orleans responds to having to replace Rajon Rondo, who’s not as good as he used to be but was quite good for the Pelicans last season. In his place, the Pels will turn to free-agent signee Elfrid Payton, who’s never been quite as good as he was supposed to be but shares some of Rondo’s length, playmaking instincts, and oddball swag. If all goes well, Payton could replace Rondo’s savvy defense, stabilizing presence, and in-case-of-emergency spot-up shooter—an area where Rondo’s been better than his reputation in recent years and in which Payton’s struggled. For what it’s worth, the Pelicans were outscored by 40 points in Payton’s 127 preseason minutes, the second-worst number on the team. If ex-Warrior Ian Clark isn’t up to shouldering a larger share of the ball handling, keep an eye on Frank Jackson, a redshirt rookie who missed last season with a foot injury but has shown some flashes in preseason.
Another major concern: a thin wing rotation where the most bankable commodity, somehow, remains E’Twaun Moore. The Pelicans need someone else to pop to lighten the load on Davis, who enters the season near the top of most MVP and Defensive Player of the Year watch lists, and Jrue Holiday, whose postseason earned him recognition as one of the game’s best two-way guards. Julius Randle might be up for the task, but while his Tasmanian devil game could be a neat fit alongside either Davis or Mirotic, a nonshooting, non-rim-protecting power player probably won’t be able to play alongside both in crunch time. This would be a nice time for Solomon Hill to live up to his lofty contract, but even writing that sentence kind of bummed me out; when trading for Wesley Johnson on the eve of the season represents a significant boost to your perimeter group, you’re probably in rough shape.
Whoever winds up getting minutes on the ball and on the wing, they’d better be ready to run. Alvin Gentry has long advocated for an uptempo attack, and with a roster full of grab-and-go types, the Pelicans seem intent on pushing the boundaries; New Orleans averaged 114.2 possessions per 48 minutes during the preseason, far and away the fastest pace of any NBA team and more than 12 possessions faster its their own league-leading mark from last season. We’ve seen how devastating the Pelicans can be when they’re snuffing out the opposition, racing down the court in transition, and feeding Davis for a dunk or hitting a trailer for an open triple. But how much faster can they go without engaging the possibility that their opponents won’t be the only ones pushed to their breaking points?