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Ranking Contenders After NBA Free Agency

Assessing the championship race after a busy week around the NBA.

The dust hasn’t fully settled on NBA free agency. Some quality names—Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schröder, um Kawhi Leonardare still on the board. For the most part, however, we now have a much better idea of where the league’s title contenders stand headed into next season. So here’s a ranking of the teams with the most realistic shot at winning a championship based almost entirely on how they look on paper.

10. Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks have a really well-built team that’s suited for postseason basketball. I just need to see more consistent play from them outside of an incredibly strange season before I’m ready to take Atlanta seriously as a title threat. I do wonder if the rest of the NBA will feel the wrath of Trae Young’s Olympic snub.

9. Utah Jazz

The Jazz’s biggest nightmare came true in the 2021 playoffs, when Rudy Gobert was essentially schemed off the court by the smallball Clippers in a brutal second-round exit. Utah couldn’t hang on to a 2–0 lead in that series, and Kawhi Leonard didn’t even play in the last two games. The Jazz are of course very talented, and the gap between them and the No. 4 team on this list is not huge. Utah can also point to its own injury issues in the backcourt last season as a reason for its early exit. What has me down on the Jazz is they don’t have a ton of flexibility to upgrade the roster. And with Gobert now being backed up by Hassan Whiteside, Utah doesn‘t seem to have much interest in adopting a secondary style of play for the postseason. This is still a formidable group. And signing the coveted Rudy Gay was actually something of a coup for this team. But I need to see more creativity from the Jazz before moving them higher.

8. Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers are obviously a little bit incomplete at the moment. A Ben Simmons move needs to happen, because I can’t imagine him showing up to training camp after the number of trades he’s been discussed in this summer. Ultimately, Philly has one of the best players in the world in Joel Embiid, somebody who is capable of being the most impactful player during a playoff series regardless of the opponent. Even trading Simmons for players who aren’t All-Stars could massively improve the Sixers. I say that as a believer that Simmons will thrive once a team is built around him. Embiid also deserves that luxury.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clips went on a spirited run in the playoffs after Leonard went down, but I don’t see them going far without Kawhi. And there’s no indication from anyone right now how long it will take for Leonard to recover from his partially torn ACL. (Oh, and this is all assuming he does in fact re-sign with the team.)

6. Golden State Warriors

I am incredibly high on the Warriors, mostly because the trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have a proven track record of winning, and winning a lot. Then there’s also 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, back in the mix in the Bay after two seasons away, bringing about the possibility of a third version of the Death Lineup. I’m expecting Thompson to be something close to the former version of himself whenever he does return, and either way his presence on the floor will make life much easier for all of Golden State’s role players. Meanwhile, Steph showed last season he’s still near or at the height of his powers, and I’m not sure the league is taking that seriously enough. Like the Sixers, a trade could be out there for the Dubs. Even if it’s not for a superstar, I like the idea of this team trying to bring in another veteran or two. Make no mistake, with Klay finally set to return, the objective here should be to chase wins. And a Warriors team with something to prove is a scary thought.

5. Denver Nuggets

Denver is bringing back Will Barton, the underrated JaMychal Green and Austin Rivers while adding Jeff Green to the team that was swept in the second round of the playoffs. In retrospect, the Nuggets’ making it to the West semis was a minor miracle considering the state of their backcourt. It’s unclear when Jamal Murray will be healthy, and whether he’ll be ready to go come playoff time. That’s the gamble I’m making here, because Denver looked scary when reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, Murray and 2021 trade deadline acquisition Aaron Gordon were all healthy. Gordon slotted in the starting lineup incredibly nicely and fully committed to his role as defensive stopper and third option. A full season to play off Jokić should pay major dividends for their chemistry. Once Murray is fully operational, the Nugs have a chance to be a juggernaut.

4. Phoenix Suns

Despite all the conjecture on 2021 perhaps being Chris Paul’s best chance at winning a title, the Suns remain near the top of the West. Phoenix hasn’t had a tumultuous offseason. They brought in JaVale McGee to help with their center depth, which was a smart move, and traded Jevon Carter for Landry Shamet, which could pay off in the playoffs. Though Dario Saric will likely miss most if not all of next year with a torn ACL, there are still some power forwards (Maybe Paul Millsap?) on the market who can come in to help. What the Suns have is a team with a high floor, a starting five that can thrive during postseason hoops and young players (Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson) who can all take their games up another level or two next season. If James Jones, proving to be one of the more shrewd executives in the league, can continue tinkering in the margins, Phoenix will remain in the championship conversation, particularly with the injury issues elsewhere in the West.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee was a deserving champion, and Giannis’s Finals performance was one of the best ever. And yet … if Kevin Durant wore his actual shoe size, the conversation around the Bucks may have been a lot different right now. The bottom line is Milwaukee is still awesome and there isn’t a ton of separation among the top three on this list. Losing P.J. Tucker, while not massive, is not nothing. The Bucks could still use some help on the wing in a possible rematch with the Nets. But frankly, if Giannis is hitting free throws at a rate anywhere close to what he did in Game 6 of the Finals, that alone could make this team close to unstoppable.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are by far the most confounding team in the NBA. There’s an alternate universe in which they trade for Buddy Hield, retain Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, use the 22nd pick in the NBA draft, and still bring in all the veteran minimum guys they ended up signing. That version of the Lakers has more shooting compared to teams from the last couple seasons while still maintaining their defensive edge. Instead, Rob Pelinka opted for a science experiment with his starting lineup, adding Russell Westbrook and a bunch of guys not exactly known for two-way play and asking them to figure it out. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are so good and so versatile that their talent could end up outweighing all the concerns here. Playing Davis at center would allow the Lakers to play James, AD, Russ, and two shooters, a configuration that will be seemingly vital to their success. But is Davis willing to make a stronger commitment to playing the five? And will the defense—the backbone of this team for two years in a row—hold up in those scenarios?

Westbrook is really the wild card here. The signings on the margins are fine enough. Malik Monk may even end up being a massive steal. The questions arise when trying to figure out how to make someone like Westbrook accept being the third option, and then figuring out how someone as poor of a shooter as Westbrook operates when being asked to be the third option. Whatever secondary concerns the Lakers have may not even matter if they never optimize Westbrook. If the conversation come playoff time is about the veteran signings, that may actually be a good sign. And despite all those concerns, there’s simply too much talent here, top-end and otherwise, to put this team any lower than two.

1. Brooklyn Nets

The Nets may not even need their whole team healthy. Give Kevin Durant only one of his superstar teammates and Brooklyn probably still makes it out of the East. That’s how scary the Nets looked during the 2021 postseason before both James Harden and Kyrie Irving went down with injuries. (Harden returned clearly well short of 100% against the Bucks.) Meanwhile, Brooklyn has made some smart moves this summer. Patty Mills is the perfect guard to play off big stars. Their two first-round picks—Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe—have the opportunity to be brought along very slowly with very little pressure. And this team is absolutely going to sign someone during the season that causes another round of buyout panic. The beauty of the Nets is not only their astounding concentration of talent at the top. It’s how everyone they bring in to play around KD, Kyrie and Harden look so much better than they would in any other situation, despite other teams needing guys like Mills more. The Nets are looming large over the rest of the NBA. I’m not sure anyone has done anything this summer that would stop me from picking Brooklyn to win it all. Only 10 months to go until we find out.

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Winners and Losers From NBA Free Agency
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Best Signings and Worst Moves in NBA Free Agency