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The NBA Alignment Chart

Categorizing every team in the league based on play style and talent heading into the 2022-23 season

Christian Blaza

Every team has a personality. It can change with a trade or a big-time signing; it can transform with a coaching hire, or even just through a few tough, losing months. It plays out through what schemes a team runs, how its players work together (or don’t), and—maybe most clearly—what happens when shit really hits the fan. The arrival of a new NBA season means there are 30 teams to get to know all over again, each with their own evolving identities. And they’re introducing themselves to us right now, as we speak, through the way they play.

Welcome to the NBA Alignment Chart—your guide to the playing style of every team for the 2022-23 NBA season. It’s a new take on a classic premise; if we can learn something about the universe by finding the alignment of Tool lyrics, KitchenAid stand mixers, and assorted Brad Pitts, why would we stop at NBA teams? There’s a value in taxonomy. Assigning a team into a certain category helps us understand what it has in common with every other team in the same bucket. Comparing those buckets can tell us a lot about the landscape of the league—from what’s valued and why to what the best and worst teams tend to gravitate toward.

A classic alignment chart plots its entries on a spectrum from lawful to chaotic, and from good to evil. The first axis we’ll keep.

A lawful team is: organized; predictable; system-driven.

A chaotic team is: versatile; free-flowing; erratic.

Yet when we’re talking about drop coverage and turnaround jumpers, good and evil seems like a bit of a stretch. So instead, we’ll judge teams on terms that any sports fan will intuitively understand: good and bad.

A good team is: talented; balanced; overpowering.

A bad team is: flawed; inexperienced; miscast.

A little reductive, sure, but generalizing is pretty much the point. What you lose in the specifics of what makes a team good or bad, successful or not, you make up by understanding what links the Cavs and Pelicans, Timberwolves and Heat, Hornets and Lakers. This is what the NBA looks like going into the 2022-23 season:

Below you’ll find explanations for how every team was categorized—from lawful good to chaotic bad, and everything in between—along with one larger question heading into the season that could alter the team’s alignment. Teams are listed in order based on last season’s records. Let’s dig in:

Image heading that says “Lawful Good,” with a picture of Luka Doncic, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Dejounte Murray

Phoenix Suns

There’s a lot hanging over the Suns right now, ranging from the eventual sale of the team as a result of a massive scandal to the apparent frustrations of one of Phoenix’s best players. And yet it still feels like the on-court product will be surprisingly stable. The Suns play like a Chris Paul team through and through, with minimal turnovers and an exacting attention to detail. That isn’t likely to change so long as he’s in uniform. Phoenix will still run the same basic curl actions for Devin Booker, setting up a dangerous scorer to attack the defense on the move. That should be as effective as ever. Some slight modifications will need to be made to what was one of the most-played starting units in the league last season, but even that lineup seems fungible; simply replace Jae Crowder (who has loudly requested a trade) with Cam Johnson and keep it moving. That’s just what these guys do.

How invested is Deandre Ayton?

There’s no indication that Ayton has been anything less than professional since reporting for camp, or that his performance in the preseason has been at all out of character. Yet it can’t exactly be ignored that Ayton, after he was ominously benched during the 2022 playoffs, signed a $133 million offer sheet to play in Indiana. The only reason he’s a Sun is because they had the power to match it. If that’s a sore spot for Ayton, it could hang over the entire season—stoking discontent, testing relationships, and eventually burbling up in his play. Yet ultimately, no one but Ayton can decide how much he really cares to be a part of this particular team, even if he doesn’t have all that much recourse to leave. With enough collective buy-in, this is still a contender. That’s just looking like a bit more of a catch than the Suns might have bargained for.

Dallas Mavericks

For as devil-may-care as a Luka Doncic team might seem, let’s take stock of what the Mavs really are: an ultra-slow, low-turnover outfit that starts most of its offense from the same, basic, high pick-and-roll premise, bolstered by one of the league’s most reliable, fundamental, down-the-middle defenses. There’s nothing more lawful than a team that wins by nailing the little things, and that’s exactly how Jason Kidd coached Dallas to 52 wins and a trip to the Western Conference finals. The Mavericks don’t play the passing lanes, they don’t shift styles, and they don’t put too much pressure on the offensive glass. It’s all a game of percentages, down to Luka playing the numbers in isolation to manipulate the entire floor. The only things keeping the Mavs from being the most orderly team in the league are what Doncic does with the ball and what he does with the new bigs he’ll be setting up this season. No team with Christian Wood and JaVale McGee can be totally predictable; whether that turns out to be constructive or disruptive for the Mavs could wind up being the story of their season.

Where do the Mavs find their secondary offense?

For a team that already had limited creative options beyond Doncic, the departure of Jalen Brunson—who ranked third among Mavs in playoff minutes and second in playoff points—leaves a pretty explicit void. No other supporting player on the roster can get all the way to the rim the way Brunson did or manufacture simple, effective looks out of the team’s base offense the way he managed to. Part of Brunson’s value was how little he required Dallas to change to fit him; there’s no real stand-in for Luka, but Brunson found his own ways to be effective through the team’s preexisting sets and spacing. In his absence, the only real choice is to adapt—to find ways to play through Wood, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Tim Hardaway Jr. (who rejoins the team after recovering from a broken foot) on their own terms, in whatever ways feel sustainable.

Philadelphia 76ers

We know exactly where James Harden and Joel Embiid want the ball. That doesn’t make them any easier to stop, though it does narrow the band of what opposing teams can expect: a steady diet of high pick-and-roll, more traditional post-ups than you’ll find almost anywhere else, and a trickle-down approach that sets up scorers like Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris to attack from the weak side. Even this summer’s main additions were distinctly lawful players: shooters who sit in the corners like P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., and a pure, straight-down-the-middle roll man in Montrezl Harrell. (De’Anthony Melton is … something else entirely.) Some of Philadelphia’s biggest missteps have come from trying to be a bit too clever—like pairing Embiid with Al Horford when almost anything but another center would do. This version of the team has learned to embrace simplicity. Trust in the fact that you have one of the best basketball players in the world. Lean into his strengths, get out of his way, and let the talent define the system.

Can James Harden still be a dominant player?

Doc Rivers has made it clear that he wants Harden running the show in Philly as both a scorer and playmaker, pushing for his own opportunities in a way that actively lifts the offense. No one else on the Sixers can create the way Harden does—or at least the way he did before he came to Philadelphia with an injured hamstring and fizzled out in a second-round playoff series against the Heat. Now it’s time to see what Harden, who recently turned 33 years old, really has left to offer. Taking some time off this summer has reportedly done wonders for his hamstring. Going through the full training-camp cycle gives Harden more opportunity to learn his teammates and what they really need from him. All that’s left is for him to prove he’s still got it—that he still has shades of his former MVP self, if not the full-blast, high-volume vintage that became an elite offense unto himself.

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Atlanta Hawks

To this point, Trae Young has shown only the capacity to be an utterly ball-dominant player. That in and of itself makes the Hawks fairly predictable, even if opponents have a hard time keeping up with every fake and feint Young throws their way. Put a clever point guard in more pick-and-rolls than pretty much any other player in the sport, spread the floor as much as possible, and profit with one of the league’s most efficient regular-season offenses. It’s really that simple. Or it was until Atlanta traded for Dejounte Murray, and Nate McMillan floated the idea that Young might log more time off the ball this season. That would be a healthy development, if it sticks. But believe it when—and only when—we see Young give up the ball on a regular basis. It’s hard for high-functioning creators of this caliber to let go, even when their team trades for another All-Star in the backcourt.

Can Atlanta get back to playing passable defense?

Maybe the most inexplicable part of the Hawks’ sharp regression last season was the way their defense—a crucial part of their run to the East finals in 2021—turned into a strung-out mess. The positioning of the defense was consistently off. The idea of making multiple efforts was apparently out of the question. Atlanta just wasn’t connected at all in its coverage, which translated to the 26th-ranked defense. If that’s just who the Hawks are now, even a smothering defender like Murray won’t make a profound difference. However you diagnose the exact cause of what happened last season (Clint Capela’s nagging injuries, questionable chemistry, etc.), Atlanta’s core, returning players will have to invest enough defensively to save themselves.

Image heading that says “Neutral Good,” with images of Zion Williamson, Donovan Mitchell, and Giannis Antetokounmpo

Milwaukee Bucks

Slowly but surely, the Bucks gave up their dogmatic commitment to a certain way of playing—drop defense, straightforward spread offense—for the sake of exploring what works. Adjustment was a crucial part of their championship story in 2021; Giannis Antetokounmpo might never have lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy if not for his team making calculated tweaks in its coverage along the way, moving defenders around and ramping up pressure to keep opponents off balance. Today’s Bucks will drop, or switch, or challenge at the level of the screen. They’re hugging up to the 3-point line more than they ever have before. And for as stale as their offense might seem, Giannis and Co. split the difference between systematized basketball and a ton of freeform transition play. The ball can go through Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, or Khris Middleton (once he returns from a wrist injury) in all kinds of spaces and combinations. It’s not always pretty, but it’s diverse enough to keep opponents honest.

Are the Bucks still an elite defense?

Last season was a low point on defense for Milwaukee in the Mike Budenholzer era—a roughly average finish on that side of the ball for a team that once ranked as the out-and-out best in the league. Only having the shot-swatting Brook Lopez for 13 regular-season games might have had something to do with it. A starting spot and a vote of confidence couldn’t make Bobby Portis the rim protector the Bucks needed, and most of Milwaukee’s small-ball lineups looked overtaxed as they tried to stay connected. It’s good to have flexibility. It’s even better to have a schematic backbone, courtesy of one of the best interior defenders working. Lopez just needs to show he can be that again for the Bucks over an 82-game term, delivering in a way that eats minutes, reduces liabilities, and gets Milwaukee back to meeting its own lofty standard.

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Cleveland Cavaliers

Of all the teams that swung blockbuster trades this summer, the Cavs may be the most ambitious. Yet it’s easy to believe in a trade like the landmark addition of Donovan Mitchell when you view it as the start of something for an ascendant core. The other reason to make the deal is that Mitchell so clearly provides what last season’s Cavs were missing: the kind of shot creation that gives a team its sense of natural order. Without it, Cleveland was stifled by having to run so much of its offense through Darius Garland, bogging down possessions into the worst kind of chaos. There should be fewer rambling possessions of various Cavs tossing the ball around the perimeter, working through actions that don’t have the space or momentum to succeed. And there should be more in which Mitchell, by the sheer force of his pick-and-roll game, busts loose the kinds of possibilities that were never available to the giant, injury-depleted team we saw a season ago. Having an All-Star you can throw the ball to can sometimes make a team predictable. But would predictability really be so bad for a defense-first team that was never quite sure where its points might come from?

Are the Cavs balanced enough to win big?

At one end of the lineup: two dynamic guards running the offense, both standing 6-foot-1. On the other end: two true bigs in Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, creating layers of rim protection that no other team in the league can match. Those are two powerful counterweights that should make for an effective team on balance. Yet it remains to be seen whether Cleveland can fully reconcile the two disparate styles baked into its roster, particularly without the kind of high-end wing talent that tends to bring lineups together. The new starting unit—no matter whether Isaac Okoro, Caris LeVert, Dean Wade, or a mystery guest starts at small forward—will be an exercise in polarity. Some nights, the guards will set up the bigs, the bigs will cover for the guards, and the entire team will find its perfect balance. Other nights will be clumsier, or more deliberate, or perhaps altogether disjointed. This team is talented enough to press the East’s major contenders as-is, and in future seasons might challenge them outright. But first comes the work of understanding exactly what the members of this loaded core have to offer one another between the lines, and what they take away.

New Orleans Pelicans

There are teams with neutral dispositions because they’re caught between extremes, in states of transition, or simply lacking the kind of superstar that would give them a stylistic lean. And then there’s the Pelicans, who after a successful run to the playoffs were more or less reset to the middle by Zion Williamson crashing into their operation like a meteor. You don’t just slide a force of nature back into your plans; Zion could thrive in almost any kind of basketball environment, but the players around him do inevitably have to adjust to his impact. Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum might have to take on slightly altered roles. Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance Jr., and Jaxson Hayes will wind up playing at varied times and in different combinations. There’s a lot left for Willie Green to nail down in his second season as head coach, and not enough of a pattern of play to say definitively what the Pelicans will look like on the floor. All we can say for sure is that Zion is back, and he’s looking pretty freaking dangerous.

Can the Pelicans establish any kind of defensive identity?

Maybe this is asking too much of an up-and-coming team that can blow out opponents with scoring alone, but it would be nice if New Orleans could manage even an average team defense—something it hasn’t done since Anthony Davis was in uniform. People’s champion Herb Jones aside, the roster isn’t exactly built for it; getting to that level would take real commitment and focus on the part of the Pelicans’ core players, and a level of connection beyond what they’ve shown. New Orleans came in just about average from the time of the McCollum trade through the end of the season. The next step is to extend that over an 82-game slate, or at least build the habits to prove they eventually could.

Image header that says “Chaotic Good” with photos of several players from the teams in this section

Memphis Grizzlies

Ja Morant is what you get when an ascendant star feeds on nothing but pure chaos energy, channeling it through every quick-twitch fiber until his entire game becomes shock and awe. You can’t even blame him for sitting back to admire his own mixtape; that’s a collection of dunks and layups and blocks that no other player in the league could possibly produce or even attempt. It’s the audacity of Morant that whips the Grizzlies into a frenzy. Sometimes they get ahead of themselves by dribbling headlong into traffic or lunging for a steal for the sake of the lob that may come after it. Yet everything Memphis does best is fueled by that same manic energy, and a roster deep enough to mix and match as Taylor Jenkins explores the fullest extent of its options. To be honest, the tactics matter only so much when a team plays this fast and this hard. The Grizzlies don’t win by making the perfect adjustment at the perfect time. They beat you by dominating all the game’s gray areas, turning the math on every 50-50 ball in their favor.

Are the Grizzlies still deep?

If we include Jaren Jackson Jr. (who underwent foot surgery over the summer), Memphis will start the year without three of its top seven players in total minutes played last season. The good news is that Jackson is due back, though perhaps not for a few more months. Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton are just gone—lost in the churn of free agency as the Grizzlies begin to consolidate their roster. There were too many quality players in Memphis for everyone to stay and for everyone to get paid. Yet that kind of shift in the depth chart inevitably means that some of the less-seasoned Grizzlies will be thrown into the mix, potentially even as starters. Things are about to get pretty real for the likes of Santi Aldama and Killian Tillie.

Miami Heat

There was only one place to put a fluid, ever-adaptive team organized by one of the sport’s great orchestrators. Miami never sits still. Within games, the Heat are a swirl of movement around the elbows and beyond, where every move is designed to make an opponent think, and overthink, and then get stuck in their own head as Jimmy Butler knifes through the lane for an easy layup. Between games, Miami is constantly changing shape. There’s always something to tinker with when a team operates this democratically, and when so many players could be moved into different spaces around the floor or through different assignments as needed. There are times when the Heat’s offense is so free-form that it seems unstable. At some point they won’t be able to pack so much exploratory action into a 24-second shot clock, or at some point they’ll get burned for working toward a better look that never quite materialized. Then you realize that the Heat rode all that ambiguity to within a shot of making the NBA Finals, again, for what would have been the second time in three seasons. What’s a little more chaos when it’s your entire way of life?

How much will the Heat miss P.J. Tucker?

What Tucker did for Miami last season was unprecedented. Over the course of the Heat’s playoff run, the 37-year-old logged time defending stars ranging from Trae Young and James Harden to Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid. Losing him—to a conference rival, no less—leaves a void. Erik Spoelstra could attempt to stretch Caleb Martin into that role, but Martin isn’t nearly as ferocious as Tucker and doesn’t have anywhere close to his defensive range. Miami could let Butler take on some of those assignments, though at an inevitable cost to his offense. We’re accustomed to a world in which the Heat produce the exact kinds of role players they need out of thin air. But can you replicate what had never been done before?

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors aren’t just agents of chaos—they’re its architects. You can usually trace any seemingly random error an opposing team makes all the way back to Steph Curry or, more precisely, to the way a single one of his moves or hesitations caused the entire defense to lose its collective mind. Curry knows he has that power. The Warriors, by extension, know exactly how to draft an entire philosophy of movement off of it. There are shooters flying around screens at virtually all times and then into handoffs that become drives, which then free up other shooters. Basic patterns became instinct, and instinct became bucket after bucket, title after title. Teams have studied Golden State’s basic designs for years and don’t really seem any closer to cracking the code. It’s one thing to know, conceptually, what the Warriors are trying to accomplish and what sets they like to run. Surviving every unpredictable development, however, is something else entirely.

Are the next-wave Warriors ready for this?

This is the season when Golden State’s reinvestment in player development collides with its clear rotation needs. After an exodus of intuitive role players, 20-year-old Moses Moody might not have the luxury of standing off to the side, idly creating space. Jonathan Kuminga might have to be more than a wild card. Both will have to move and read the game like Warriors, sliding into a freewheeling rhythm that has been rolling for years. James Wiseman, the no. 2 pick who missed all of last season, might actually have to play—and finish at the rim enough to diversify Golden State’s entire strategic operation. There’s a lot of cover in running with Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, but the young, unseasoned Warriors will have to figure out where they fit in a complex ecosystem under the massive weight of a title defense. Not everyone can play the way Golden State does; you either find the flow or you don’t. You thrive in the chaos, or you drown in it.

Boston Celtics

Coaching turmoil aside, the Celtics tend to only put a somewhat chaotic product on the floor—one limited by their personnel on offense, but with enough size and switchability on defense to keep opponents guessing. Moving Robert Williams III (who could miss the first few months of the season after undergoing knee surgery) into a roving, weakside role gave one of the league’s toughest defenses a vital, confounding element. Even if an opposing team managed to break Boston’s initial stranglehold on the pick-and-roll, it would have to contend with Williams swooping in from an unspecified position, jamming up what seemed like a sure thing. Without Williams, the Celtics play even smaller and less predictably, sometimes to their detriment. There isn’t much mystery as to where the ball will go: to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, usually in that order. How the ball gets there is another story entirely, and often a more erratic process than Boston would like. A healthy Malcolm Brogdon—picked up via trade for scraps—could help calm things down.

Will Joe Mazzulla operate like an interim or a fully ratified head coach?

Maybe it’s naive to think that the Celtics could be the same team that made a run to the Finals, stylistically speaking, when the coach responsible for that team’s style of play is now suspended for the entire season. Beyond that: It’s not clear if Ime Udoka will ever have the opportunity to coach this Boston team again. That makes Mazzulla an unprecedented kind of interim—filling a post that isn’t technically vacant, yet empowered to call the shots for one of the best teams in the league. It will be telling to see what Mazzulla changes and what he opts to keep in place. Are there supporting players Mazzulla might trust more than Udoka did? Are there elements of the playbook that weren’t to his liking? It could take a few months, but the longer Mazzulla is in the head job, the more likely he’ll be to make a definitive stamp on a contender.

Denver Nuggets

From the moment Nikola Jokic touches the ball, no other player on the floor can be quite certain of where a possession might go. Teammates on the move have to keep their eyes up, or else they risk taking a pass straight to the head. Defenders in Jokic’s general vicinity have to be equally conscious of their man coming in for a handoff or darting back door—diametrically opposed possibilities that make it difficult for a defense to commit to stopping any action at all. Whoever is guarding Jokic has to be ready for the fact that what seems like a pass could instantly become a shot, and what looks like a shot may well be the staging for a pass. Nothing can be ruled out at virtually any time. It’s dizzying. It’s incredible. It’s consciousness-expanding. Jokic has go-to moves and natural rhythms to his game just like anyone else, yet the way he reads the action makes the Nuggets a perpetually moving target—and unlike any team in the league.

Can the newly healthy Nuggets pick up where they left off?

The last time we saw Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Aaron Gordon play together in an NBA game, they made dominance look easy. That was a year and a half ago; an ACL tear took Murray out of commission and derailed that lineup before it could even establish itself. Recurring issues with Porter’s back forced more problems and more compromises, until the Nuggets could only surround Jokic and Gordon with a bare-bones rotation. This season is a grand reunion of a core that barely played together in the first place—a chance to finally see how Gordon slots into the role Denver initially imagined he would fill.

Minnesota Timberwolves

In the 2022 playoffs, the Wolves proved to be a team equally adept in building leads and blowing them; at seizing momentum and fumbling it away; and at managing to reach the truly spectacular until they (almost as spectacularly) managed to trip over their own feet. One of the most electric teams in the West playoffs wound up turning the ball over more often than any other team on that side of the bracket. Yet at every moment in its first-round series, Minnesota felt like a team on the bleeding edge of something—close enough, in the franchise’s own estimation, to push a chunk of its starting lineup and a huge amount of its draft capital into a trade for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. In theory, a move like that should stabilize what was one of the most aggressive defenses in the league last season, settling Minnesota’s constant scrambling into the steady beats of drop coverage. In practice, Gobert will slot in alongside another center in Karl-Anthony Towns, making every night a puzzle of matchups and spacing that the Wolves will have to solve in real time. Even by trading for one of the most straightforward stars in the league, Minnesota can’t help but make things interesting.

What can’t Anthony Edwards do?

The biggest reason the Wolves feel comfortable accelerating into their next phase as an organization is that Edwards—a 21-year-old natural who could score in his sleep—wouldn’t have slowed down anyway. The fact that he’s already accomplished this much this quickly (most notably averaging 25.2 points per game on 60 percent true shooting in that playoff series against the Grizzlies) changed the way Minnesota looked at itself and its prospects. This is a franchise tethered to every explosive drive from its youngest star, and similarly chained to every mistake as he finds his way. This season, Ant’s third in the league, should offer a clearer sense of where he might be going. We know he can create, but how reliably will he create for others? Chris Finch gives his best players—and Edwards in particular—a lot of latitude to explore within the offense. Will the precocious young guard find his way to reliable reads in the biggest moments, or will his grasp of those situations always feel a bit too loose, a bit too free? It’s already clear that Edwards can elevate a team. What’s still to be decided is whether he can anchor one, too.

Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn remains a total mess from an organizational perspective, in a way that could—or maybe will, inevitably—lead to absolute anarchy between the lines. Any team with Kevin Durant can fall back on the security of his pull-up jumper. But how secure can any of this really be when that safety net has made clear it would rather be anywhere else? The looming impact of Durant’s unfulfilled trade request makes the Nets one of the most chaotic teams on the board and one of the most undeniable in terms of aggregate talent. Kyrie Irving could make first team All-NBA or retire to take an internship at InfoWars. Ben Simmons could turn out to be a perfect fit next to KD and Kyrie, or a slightly lesser version of the already complicated player he was before his back injury. It doesn’t exactly help matters that throughout the entire Durant-Irving era, Brooklyn has never managed to set anything resembling a baseline style of play. And even that might not matter that much. The Nets are a team that should be and could be contending, in spite of everything—if only they could stop imploding for long enough to play through a single season as planned.

Are we just going to pretend all of this is normal?

Durant—after requesting a trade in the offseason and then later clarifying that, actually, he would stay under the condition that his team’s coach and general manager be fired—would like all of us to move on. “I know it’s an interesting story,” he told reporters last week. “I know that it took up most of the offseason, and drama sells, I get that, but I didn’t miss any games, I didn’t miss any practices, I’m still here. So hopefully we can move past that.” With all due apologies, Kevin, I’m not sure we can. You can’t just quietly pack away an attempt to detonate the entire leadership structure of an NBA franchise and go back to work. Brooklyn could be undefeated going into February and there would still be curiosity in league circles as to whether Durant wanted out. Maybe this story fades with time. Maybe KD goes on to play the rest of his career in a Nets jersey. Yet at this juncture, it’s hard to imagine a bigger, more pressing matter in the league than one of its all-time best players asking for a trade, not getting it, and trying to walk back into work like nothing happened.

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Los Angeles Clippers

The biggest surprise with the Clippers isn’t what schemes they’ll run but who will even be on the floor to execute them. We can safely pencil Kawhi Leonard (who hasn’t played an NBA game in almost 500 days) and Paul George into the lineup for the biggest moments. Beyond them, Tyronn Lue will have to decide how closely he wants to hew to convention—or at least the closest this modern, hyperversatile roster could come to approximating it. Do you really need a center when you can have a lineup of big, switchable wings? It’s nice to have John Wall, but is a traditional point guard really required when Leonard and George are going to do so much of the ballhandling anyway? This has the makings of a rotation that could be equally unpredictable for both opponents and the players involved; the only way for Lue to find time for every player on the roster who deserves it is to constantly change up who is playing and when, a challenging locker room dynamic that could wind up making the Clippers even harder to pin down.

Can the Clippers’ stars actually finish the season?

Since Leonard and George joined the Clippers three years ago, they’ve only completed one playoff run together—in 2020, when they lost a seven-game series to the Nuggets in the second round. Since then, Kawhi has appeared in just 63 total games. George lost significant time to an elbow injury and then missed the Clippers’ do-or-die play-in game last season when he tested positive for COVID-19. The roster of this team suggests it should be the clear championship favorite, and yet the reality with the Clippers warns us to wait and see. It would be nice, after all this time, to finally get the measure of this team—to see all its promise realized behind two of the most versatile players in the sport. If only it were that simple.

Image header that says “Lawful Neutral” with a photo of Jalen Brunson

New York Knicks

Tom Thibodeau teams live and die on hard and fast rules, even when they keep good, young players glued to the bench and leave the defense vulnerable to hot perimeter shooting. Don’t count on lineup reinvention or dramatic halftime adjustments. The Knicks will stick to the principles they’ve ironed out from the first days of training camp, which lean conservative on defense (New York switched fewer ball screens than any team in the league last season, according to Second Spectrum) and fairly straightforward and scripted on offense. There’s a world in which this same roster could run wild and free, with smaller lineups and a more flexible style. It won’t happen; this is one of the slowest, most structured teams in the league, and that’s exactly the way Thibs wants it. Rather than change the way the team plays, the Knicks will bank on Jalen Brunson to elevate this group beyond its apparent limits. Maybe it’ll work. Or maybe the Knicks will look like every other Tom Thibodeau team, only with one more quality option trying to make the most of life within the same familiar designs.

Will Obi Toppin ever get his shot?

Good things tend to happen for the Knicks when Toppin is on the floor, which is why it’s odd that the organization seems broadly resistant to it happening with any great consistency. If Toppin’s playing time were a priority for the front office, you wouldn’t know it from the way New York has stacked its frontcourt—with Julius Randle entrenched at the 4, Thibodeau stubbornly resistant to the idea of playing Toppin and Randle together, and enough viable options at center to erase any opportunity Toppin could have found there. The walls of the rotation are closing in, making it hard to imagine the Dayton product finding much more than the 17.1 minutes per game he played last season. It really shouldn’t be this hard for a player who makes a clear impact on the floor with his energy and anticipation to find a bigger role with the team that drafted him eighth overall. Yet here we are.

Image header that says “Neutral” with a picture of several players from the teams in this section

Chicago Bulls

The more chaos the Bulls can muster, the more dynamic they ultimately become. This is a team that needs to fly around the court to fulfill its defensive potential, putting enough pressure on the ball and in the passing lanes to force flustered opponents into mistakes. Yet with Lonzo Ball sidelined for the foreseeable future, Chicago doesn’t have enough juice to make that happen. Half-measures don’t really work here; it’s the cumulative effect of Ball, Alex Caruso, and Ayo Dosunmu that overwhelms teams, and anything short of that just feels like senseless gambling. In the absence of all that kinetic energy, the Bulls rely even more on the methodical play of DeMar DeRozan. It’s that need (and the occasional absences of Zach LaVine) that turned DeRozan into one of the highest-volume pick-and-roll players in the league last season. There just aren’t that many alternatives. You can diversify to a point, but this rotation is so limited that the Bulls often wind up playing a slower, less dangerous style than they would otherwise like.

What’s next for Patrick Williams?

One silver lining for the Bulls: The highest-variance player on the roster just turned 21 years old and barely played at all last season. Williams is a huge wing with good shooting touch, a tantalizing combination that makes his individual development a vital concern for the entire organization. The future of this version of the Bulls may hinge on what Williams becomes. Most of his best work to this point has been situational—support scoring from the kid in the corner that defenses had largely left alone. Yet if Williams can reliably create just a bit more offense from the center of the frame, Chicago could have a really interesting player on its hands.

Charlotte Hornets

Here’s one way to get to the stylistic middle: Hire one of the most ordered and meticulous coaches on the NBA scene to work with a wildly creative and seemingly incompatible point guard. Steve Clifford has gotten steady work for years by winning on the details. Reducing variance is exactly the point: Run your stuff, protect the ball, and clean up on the margins against regular-season opponents that don’t always have their shit together. Charlotte’s defensive rotations will be more traditional and more solid. Its offense will be more carefully drawn, to mixed results. For all the Hornets’ flaws last season, they still got out in transition enough to finish with a top-10 offense. Clifford’s last team, by contrast, plodded through one of the slowest attacks in the league.

LaMelo Ball playing a more methodical style isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if only it were possible to comprehend how his more audacious tendencies might actually fit within the boxes Clifford usually creates. That style would have him run diagrammed play after diagrammed play, all against set defenses—the sort of crucible the league’s best players have all learned to overcome. Progress, in this case, would require the 21-year-old All-Star to demonstrate a patience he’s never shown before.

Do the Hornets have any kind of long-term core?

The reason so much rests on Ball’s shoulders this season is that it’s increasingly unclear what this team might look like moving forward. Miles Bridges, whose all-around game was vital to last season’s team, is currently unsigned as he faces charges for three counts of felony domestic violence. Gordon Hayward, the only other player on the roster who’s made an All-Star team, has dealt with frequent and ongoing injury problems even as the team tried to proactively manage his workload. Many of the team’s better contributors (Terry Rozier, P.J. Washington, Kelly Oubre Jr.) profile as role players. None of the team’s other recent draft picks have really popped, or even been given the opportunity to. At this point, even one of those young players (James Bouknight, Kai Jones, Jalen McDaniels, rookie Mark Williams) coming into his own would be a huge development.

Washington Wizards

It’s hard to imagine a more distinctly neutral team than the Wizards, which isn’t such a bad place to land after four straight losing seasons and some of the most dramatic roster turnover in the league. The latest of those moves suggests an organization trying to find its level—plays for the kind of depth, reliable veteran help, and steady ball handling Washington just didn’t have last season. Getting Bradley Beal back in the lineup will clean up a lot of possessions on its own; the Wizards got bogged down while just trying to work through their offense last season, and could certainly use Beal’s ability to get things moving by drawing multiple defenders. A best-case season for the Wizards might actually trend toward the lawful side of things, particularly on defense. This team badly needs the structure of a defensive anchor, and will give Kristaps Porzingis every opportunity this season to take on that role. It might be asking too much.

Can Kristaps Porzingis recapture his unicorn glory?

Porzingis is lighter and healthier than he’s been in some time, which feels like the hard reboot he needed after things went sideways in Dallas. It seems both reasonable to expect a slightly more mobile version of KP this season and yet crazy to expect too much. There’s more for Porzingis to do in playing with Beal than alongside Luka Doncic, and that seemed to suit him; Kristaps played some of his best basketball in years after the midseason trade to the Wizards, carrying lesser lineups than the one Washington will use to start this season. There’s still just so much left to prove, beginning with whether Porzingis can ever stay healthy enough to be a cornerstone player, or at least mobile enough to be the best remaining version of himself.

Christian Blaza

Los Angeles Lakers

There are two forces at work in the Lakers’ on-court product: the unbridled chaos that comes from (and surrounds) Russell Westbrook, and the implied logic of LeBron James. History tells us that LeBron teams are about as orderly as they come. Running offense through him makes the entire process simple and repeatable, though it might also flatten out some teammates into the simplest versions of themselves. A player who can decipher the game like LeBron can make everything around him make sense. Except, it seems, when there’s a high-usage point guard gorging himself on possessions and clogging the lane. If it was absolutely certain that the Lakers would be able to trade Westbrook this season, maybe we would see more of LeBron’s style in the way the Lakers operate. Yet as things stand, Westbrook has the power—and the inclination—to complicate just about everything.

Who plays for the Lakers in crunch time?

It’s fitting that the two L.A. teams would face the same dilemma for completely different reasons. The Clippers’ closing lineup feels completely undefined at this point, leaving Tyronn Lue to sift through as many as a dozen viable players for the right fit in the moment. Meanwhile, Darvin Ham will just have to hope he can put three supporting players around LeBron and Anthony Davis that he can actually trust. The biggest variable is whether taking Westbrook off the floor in those moments is up for negotiation. Yet beyond that, the Lakers are likely wading into crunch time with some combination of Kendrick Nunn, Patrick Beverley, Dennis Schröder, or … Juan Toscano-Anderson? Lonnie Walker IV? It might be a lineup decided by process of elimination.

Sacramento Kings

There’s a funky stylistic balance to the pairing of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis—a natural give and take that goes beyond whatever synergy they eventually develop in the pick-and-roll. Fox gives Sacramento the means to accelerate and Sabonis the tools to slow down. Working from the elbow means Sabonis can pick a defense apart from within it, and attacking head-on from the perimeter allows Fox to create a different level of panic to a different kind of end. Neither is a clear-cut All-Star, but together they’ll be able to stress out opponents by pulling them in multiple directions at once. This is a formula that can work. Sacramento just needs enough reliable shooters (check) and intuitive playmakers (a work in progress) to keep things breezy, but the core alone seems like the basis for a top-10 offense.

How much can Keegan Murray handle in Year 1?

Murray was clearly one of the best players at Las Vegas Summer League, and frankly one of the best on the court in his preseason debut against the Lakers. If he keeps acing tests at every turn, Mike Brown will need to find more things to throw at him. Maybe the first step is an eventual starting spot; on Monday, KZ Okpala started as a defensive specialist alongside Sabonis and Harrison Barnes, a perfectly sensible arrangement save for the fact that there’s a rookie forward waiting in the wings. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Murray running second-unit offense in due time, or closing games alongside veterans. The 22-year-old rookie already looks so comfortable with the ball in his hands that it’s probably worthwhile to throw everything at him and see where his limits are.

Portland Trail Blazers

Vacuums create chaos. And through no fault of their own, Damian Lillard (abdominal surgery) and CJ McCollum (a collapsed lung, and a subsequent trade) left a vacuum of shots and touches and minutes last season—one that Portland filled with borderline NBA talent on the way to one of the worst records in the league. The Blazers never really figured out how they should play in Chauncey Billups’s first season as head coach, most notably leaning into a hyper-aggressive defense that didn’t suit the fully healthy version of their roster, much less the depleted reality. A more balanced scheme along with flatly better players (namely Jerami Grant and Gary Payton II, along with full seasons from contributors like Josh Hart and Justise Winslow) should bring Portland closer to level. Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Dame. Just putting the ball in his hands will help the Blazers keep their poise and win some games. If they have to do without him for any extended period, all bets are off.

Can Portland find enough depth to get by?

The first five for the Blazers (Lillard, Grant, Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic, and a wing to be named later) isn’t exactly a problem. What could be is everything Portland has (or doesn’t have) behind them—a collection of good-but-undersized role players, fairly limited contributors, and underbaked prospects. At least one of these Create-a-Player centers is going to need to play real minutes on a regular basis, to say nothing of the fact that almost every forward on the roster beyond Grant comes with obvious caveats. This is a big moment for Nassir Little and Trendon Watford. That’s both a great developing story for two young players who have shown some flashes, and less than a ringing endorsement for the state of Portland’s bench.

Image header that says “Chaotic Neutral” with a photo of Scottie Barnes
Christian Blaza

Toronto Raptors

Toronto has a roster versatile enough to try any style, and lacking just enough that it more or less has to. The result is a team that is constantly evolving—moving savvy operators all around the floor, or putting them in the kinds of free-form situations where things like position and role don’t really matter. Centers are optional. Point guards are negotiable, at least to the point that they can be turned into something else entirely while long, skilled forwards pick up the ball and run with it. How can you even prepare for a team that never plays the same game twice? One night the Raptors might switch every ball screen, and the next they could have customized coverages for every possible opponent. The opposing team’s scouting report must read like the world’s most convoluted flow chart—endless branches of ifs and thens splayed out into more outcomes than even the most dedicated professional could keep straight.

Could Scottie Barnes take the leap?

This is really the existential question for this version of the Raptors. There is an All-Star guard on the roster in Fred VanVleet and an All-NBA forward in Pascal Siakam. Yet the future of the team goes through the reigning Rookie of the Year and turns on whether he can eventually transition from a do-it-all connector into a superstar of the highest order. It’s a lot to ask of any player, and in a perfect world, Barnes would be able to feel his way through these formative NBA years without carrying that kind of burden. But his best-case scenario is what Toronto needs most: a centerpiece that could help a talented roster find its shape. There are too many times when the Raptors’ best players feel stretched beyond their means—a factor that might have played into VanVleet slogging through injuries down the stretch of last season and again in the playoffs. If Barnes can at least start to dominate games in a way that could eventually let everyone around him slide into more natural roles, many of the questions around the Raptors will fall away.

Image heading that says “Lawful Bad” with photos of Tyrese Haliburton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Keldon Johnson

San Antonio Spurs

An argument could be made that the Spurs run such a rigid, structured offensive system that it actively impedes the development of their young players, or at the very least seems to frustrate them. I’m just not going to be the one to make that argument, considering that system is being implemented by the best coach in NBA history—one who helped sustain a dynasty through player development and created processes that have been modeled throughout the entire league. Gregg Popovich knows what he’s doing. He also knows what he’s getting into. “Nobody here should go to Vegas withon the thought of betting on us to win the championship,” Popovich told reporters last week. It would be safer money to bet on the Spurs to have the worst record in the league. There isn’t a single player on the roster who can occupy or collapse an opposing defense in the wake of trading Dejounte Murray. A good portion of the rotation is still proving it has real NBA chops. The basketball is going to get ugly, even if the young Spurs spend the entire season coloring within the lines.

Could the Spurs already have the foundation for their next playoff team?

There aren’t any surefire future stars in San Antonio at present, but the closest thing the Spurs had last season was (Olympic gold medalist!) Keldon Johnson, a relentless player who made huge strides as a scorer. He’s joined now by off-ball natural Jeremy Sochan, the franchise’s highest draft pick (no. 9 overall) since selecting Tim Duncan with the top pick in 1997. Neither should be earmarked for a future All-Star team just yet, much less any place among the league’s elite. Yet there’s something promising about starting this process with two players who find their games through movement—kinetic drivers and willing passers who can facilitate any kind of action. If they can learn to play together and push toward a kind of stardom over time, San Antonio might have a comfortable landing spot already in place for one of the prime prospects in the 2023 draft.

Indiana Pacers

Even as he coaches the Pacers through a rebuild, Rick Carlisle is a tactician at heart—obsessed with finding the slightest edge, and capitalizing through regimented play. He just hasn’t had a roster that could execute to his standards. Even the slightly more experienced team Carlisle coached before the Domantas Sabonis trade would bungle its defensive rotations and blur its prescribed spacing, lost in the rules he had carefully laid out. Now that Indiana has committed to developing younger talent, we can expect more glitches in the Pacers’ systems. Yet this still seems like a team driven by its sense of order—and carried by how Tyrese Haliburton works within those guidelines. He’s really a perfect collaborator: patient in the way he teases out advantages, disciplined enough to play the long game, and so creative as to see beyond the basic mechanics of any set play. That won’t be enough to guide the Pacers to consistently polished basketball, though at least it’s a framework.

Who can the Pacers invest in?

We know Indiana will lose plenty of games this season, and all but guarantee itself prime lottery odds for what looks to be a momentous draft class. But where should this staff focus its energies in the meantime? Haliburton and no. 6 overall pick Bennedict Mathurin are central to the team’s plans. Beyond them, Chris Duarte, Aaron Nesmith, Isaiah Jackson, and Jalen Smith are all worthy of developmental attention and opportunities in their respective lanes. The best thing a team can do this early in its rebuilding process is try to keep as many plates in the air as possible. You never know who might catch on when given the chance, or whose game might settle if slotted into the right role. Nesmith (who came from Boston in the Malcolm Brogdon trade) should get real, consistent opportunities for the first time in his NBA career. Jackson should have the freedom to attack slower bigs and lopsided defenses off the dribble. It’s important for young players to learn winning habits, but making the most of this season means letting them stretch their games a bit, too.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The underlying message of Mark Daigneault’s extended riff on broccoli and Skittles last season was that when it comes to player development, there are real, sustainable processes that build a player up over time (broccoli) and there are flashy, less significant indicators that largely distract from the work being done (Skittles). Chasing the latter is what gets entire organizations in trouble, which is why the Thunder have created such a measured framework around their upstart roster. Roles have been carefully defined, even when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t available to prop up the offense. A few select players (like Josh Giddey and Lu Dort) are pushed in those situations to see what they might be capable of, but even those experiments come with clear boundaries—guardrails to protect the integrity of the entire process, even when half of the lineup is moonlighting with the Oklahoma City Blue.

When can the Thunder turn the corner?

The toughest call in team-building is knowing when to move forward from a rebuild—to locate exactly when a young, growing team has enough talent and capacity for improvement to make a push toward playoff viability. Gilgeous-Alexander is already a very good NBA player, and if not for injury and the Thunder’s record, he might already be an All-Star. Giddey is a very promising prospect, and Chet Holmgren (who will miss this season with a foot injury) a tantalizing one. Would that core be enough to anchor a playoff team for the foreseeable future, if flanked with the right supporting cast? The way the Thunder continued to display a long view with its personnel moves this offseason suggests otherwise—and shows that there’s at least one more year of patient development in the cards before things start getting serious. And after seeing glimpses of what Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson could be, could anyone really blame the Thunder for playing the long game?

Image header that says “Neutral Bad” with a photo of Collin Sexton

Utah Jazz

The Jazz begin the season in an odd place: with enough proven NBA role players to execute the aims of first-year head coach Will Hardy and with such a clear lack of star power (or even anything resembling star power) that it should hardly make a difference anyway. Not that any of that is a problem; Utah’s front office knew what it was getting into when it jettisoned its three best players this summer, the first steps in an extended rebuild that will make the Jazz more of an exploratory project for the foreseeable future. Hardy has indicated he wants this team to be versatile (and hardworking and up-tempo, among other training camp clichés), but this isn’t really a roster built for that or for any clear end at all. Everything in Utah is transitional. Collin Sexton is coming off the bench in the preseason, but might not in a few months. Veterans are featured prominently in the rotation at the moment, but that could change. There are no certainties beyond the fact that the Jazz will lose a lot of games this season, one way or another, with a roster sure to look very different come February.

When do the Jazz start offloading role players?

A team with every motivation to be the worst in the league this season has a roster so deep with baseline NBA talent that a recent lottery pick (Ochai Agbaji) might not be able to even crack the rotation on opening night. Let’s run through the list: Sexton; Lauri Markkanen; Mike Conley; Malik Beasley; Jarred Vanderbilt; Jordan Clarkson; Kelly Olynyk; Rudy Gay; Talen Horton-Tucker. There isn’t a single player in that group that absolutely has to be moved, yet all of them plausibly could be under the right circumstances. It all comes down to how the trade market develops, and how Danny Ainge chooses to play it.

Image header that says “Chaotic Bad” with photos of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, and Paolo Banchero

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons could take some intriguing steps forward as Cade Cunningham comes into his own, but let’s keep the baseline in mind: This was the league’s third-worst team by record last season in part because of a choppy and unreliable half-court offense. What success the Pistons had came from learning to live with the mess. Pressure defense got a young team out on the break more often. Crashing the glass helped Detroit salvage possessions that never quite panned out. This is still a team learning how to play NBA basketball, driven by a core of inexperienced players that’s only expanding. Rookies Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren look to be terrific additions to what the Pistons are building, but what they need most is time, and touches, and the room to make mistakes. A little chaos is all part of the plan.

Is Bojan Bogdanovic sticking around or just stopping through?

Just before the start of camp, Detroit quietly swung a trade for Bogdanovic at a bargain price (perhaps because word got out that the 33-year-old forward was looking for a multiyear commitment). Now the Pistons have the option of either relying on Bogdanovic as a peripheral member of their rebuild or trading him again near the February deadline. In the meantime, Detroit gets exactly the kind of veteran it needs to stabilize the frontcourt: a tried-and-true floor spacer with a flexible game, and a genuine competitor who buys in and plays hard.

Orlando Magic

Last season, Orlando didn’t have anything resembling the star-level talent it needed to create good shots consistently. So the Magic ebbed and flowed, fumbling their way to the worst record in the Eastern Conference. It wasn’t for lack of trying or even for a lack of quality players. Those things just don’t matter as much when the team needs someone, anyone to manufacture offense, if only to spare lesser scorers from spending 24 seconds spinning their wheels. Enter Paolo Banchero, a 6-foot-10 forward who can handle, pass, drive, and get to his shot over almost anyone. The question isn’t whether the Magic will put the ball in Paolo’s hands after drafting him first overall, but how; so far, it’s been a priority to get him in as many pick-and-rolls as possible, a crash course in reading coverages and manipulating defenders as they come. Just having Banchero in the lineup will make Orlando a bit less erratic this season—though only a bit. This is still a 19-year-old learning the most formative levels of the NBA game. Things will get careless, and then feel overly mechanical until Banchero breaks in those moves and reads over time. Progress, at this stage, tends to look messy.

Can Jalen Suggs get a mulligan?

In theory, Suggs should be a tentpole player for the Magic of the future—a savvy, charismatic combo guard who slots in perfectly alongside Banchero and Franz Wagner. In reality, the former no. 5 pick is coming off a miserable rookie year, in which a string of injuries delayed the start of his season, complicated it at every step, and eventually ended it prematurely. Along the way, even the most basic elements of Suggs’s game were called into question by NBA competition. His handle was surprisingly loose—or perhaps not so surprisingly when you account for his fractured thumb. He struggled to create any kind of separation in the lane and got swallowed up by the length of rotating defenders, as would make sense for a guard dealing with multiple ankle sprains. So let’s start over, shall we? Here’s to a fresh start and a clean bill of health.

Houston Rockets

If there was any kind of system at work for the Rockets last season, it was buried beneath the compounding bad habits and burgeoning games of so many young players, all too early in their own individual development to really have a sense of how they should actually fit together. That was largely by design. Funneling possessions through Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. led to a lot of false starts and empty attempts, all of them sacrificed in the hope that the two guards might learn something along the way. Green showed notable improvement over the course of the season, though not so much improvement that he’ll be able to prevent what looks to be an even younger rotation from swerving all over the court. There are no straight lines when it comes to player development. It’s messy. It’s complicated. And in Houston, there’s so much of it going on simultaneously that it’ll be hard for the Rockets to play anything resembling coherent basketball. The hope is simply that, by the end of the year, the picture of what this team could be starts to shine through.

Can Houston’s young bigs really play together?

No. 3 pick Jabari Smith Jr. and blogboy fantasy Alperen Sengun have been starting together during the preseason, and the initial returns have been encouraging. Smith looks like an easy fit in any context—a smooth shooter with a quick release who just so happens to be 6-10. That leaves room for Sengun to work the block, but only if Houston can thread enough shooting throughout the rest of its rotation. There’s always a catch with Sengun, who does tantalizing things with the ball but, through the limitations of his game, asks a lot of his teammates. If Smith can fulfill some of those asks all on his own, the Rockets may have found the inside track on a really compelling frontcourt.

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