Giannis Antetokounmpo hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy less than a month ago, but the NBA calendar stops for nobody as we gear up for the 2021–22 season. The draft is in the rearview mirror. Summer League will conclude Tuesday. As for free agency, the dust has largely settled, with a number of moves made over the last month nearly guaranteed to make an impact on the playoff race next spring.
So who made major upgrades this offseason and who took a step back? Check out The Crossover’s post-free-agency power rankings as we assess the league’s landscape ahead of next season.
30. Oklahoma City Thunder
Sam Presti’s war chest is still stocked with picks, and another year of tanking is likely coming for Oklahoma City. Expect plenty of touches for international youngsters Josh Giddey and Aleksej Pokusevski, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could be among the league leaders in usage. This is a roster light on both veteran experience and front-line talent. The No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft is firmly in play for the Thunder.
29. Orlando Magic
A healthy Jonathan Isaac is necessary for Orlando to climb out of the Eastern Conference cellar, and even if he is on the floor come opening night, this team won't look anything like a playoff contender. Don’t despair, Magic fans. The franchise’s latest youth movement could lead to sustained success in future years, with Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner both joining the franchise with plenty of promise as top-10 picks. Don’t be surprised if we endure another tankathon from the Magic this year as they look to add additional talent in the 2022 draft.
28. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are a fringe play-in contender (at best) entering 2021–22, though they’d rank far higher if this were a League Pass rankings. Jalen Green could be a prolific scorer as a rookie, and, like Anthony Edwards, he should flash signs of stardom on the right night. And Green isn’t the only rookie to keep an eye on. Alperen Şengün is a low-post force with impressive vision. Houston GM Rafael Stone called Spanish import Usman Garuba “the best defender outside the NBA,” upon drafting him. Even if John Wall can’t log a full season, there should still be a hefty amount of intrigue with this squad in the post–James Harden era. After a nightmarish 2020–21, let’s hope Stephen Silas & Co. can begin to turn the tide with a promising crop of youngsters.
27. Detroit Pistons
Detroit is in a similar position to Houston, armed with plenty of young talent even if the playoffs are still a year or two away. Cade Cunningham should battle Green for Rookie of the Year honors, and his partnership with 2020 lottery pick Killian Hayes in the backcourt will be a story to watch throughout the year. Isaiah Stewart is a delight to watch as an undersized center. Jerami Grant is more skilled than many expected as a lead option. Cunningham’s development will shape the franchise for years to come, though this isn’t exactly a one-man show entering next season.
26. San Antonio Spurs
Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan have found new homes, and the Spurs will likely embrace the youth movement next season. And while that’s good news for the franchise’s hopes of returning to relevance over the next half decade, the decision could bring some pain in 2021–22. Dejounte Murray is the only member of the roster who could be considered a top-50-or-so player across the league. Sizable minutes for recent first-round picks Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker IV could lead to some notable growing pains. Consider it a surprise if San Antonio is even a play-in team next season.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves
The quartet of Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Malik Beasley and D’Angelo Russell could lead to some success next season if everyone stays healthy, though a quick scan across this roster reveals a relatively alarming lack of talent and depth. Minnesota wasn’t able to add a lottery pick this season due to the Russell trade that sent Andrew Wiggins to Golden State, and the team writ large is packed with fringe rotation players on good teams. It would take a career year from Towns for Minnesota to end the season with a play-in spot.
24. Cleveland Cavaliers
I have high hopes for Evan Mobley as a future franchise anchor in the frontcourt, and Darius Garland made a leap in his sophomore season in 2020–21. But it seems as though this is a franchise still without any discernible direction, unable to form a coherent vision to the future. Collin Sexton still has a lot of work to do as a leading man. $100 million for Jarrett Allen doesn’t seem like the most sensible move after drafting Mobley. It will take a year or two for Mobley to fully adjust to the professional game. Until then, this is unlikely to be a playoff contender.
23. Sacramento Kings
Sacramento was relatively quiet this offseason, save for its brief trade dalliance with the Lakers, and while we won’t confuse the Kings for any sort of title contender, perhaps a play-in push is within their sights this season. Retaining Richaun Holmes in free agency was a critical move for a team lacking frontcourt talent, and the three-guard combo of De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and rookie Davion Mitchell could prove to be a dynamic unit sooner than later. I’m willing to buy into an optimistic view of the Kings for 2021–22, even if there is a limited ceiling for this squad.
22. Washington Wizards
Shipping Russell Westbrook was the prudent move for the franchise’s long-term health, and while this could look increasingly foolish in the coming months, I have faith in this team under first-year coach Wes Unseld Jr. Washington has a rotation that could run 10 deep with legitimate contributors, and backcourt pieces Spencer Dinwiddie, Aaron Holiday and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should be quality complements to Bradley Beal. A Beal trade would send the Wizards to the bottom of our rankings, though for now, perhaps this group can provide enough winning to keep the franchise star happy.
21. New Orleans Pelicans
We could see Zion Williamson compete for All-NBA votes if healthy this season, and the young forward’s offensive brilliance is the best case you can make for the Pelicans as a playoff team. Williamson averaged 27 points per game on an outrageous 61.1% from the field last season, and his blend of strength and leaping ability channeled young Shaq in spurts. Is there much to like outside of Williamson? Not exactly. This is a team desperately lacking a true floor general, and I’m not the biggest fan of Brandon Ingram as a running mate despite his intriguing offensive skill set. The chatter surrounding Williamson’s potential departure from New Orleans is unlikely to get any quieter after this upcoming season.
20. Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis has plenty of young talent alongside Ja Morant, yet this feels like a roster heading toward a step backward in its development after a playoff appearance last season. Skilled center Jonas Valančiūnas was replaced by Steven Adams, and Morant’s potential backcourt partner Eric Bledsoe was shipped to Los Angeles for Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo. It’s hard to see Memphis as anything but a play-in team this season barring a major efficiency leap from Morant.
19. Toronto Raptors
Doubt the Raptors at your peril. Kyle Lowry is now in Miami and there are still major questions at center, but would it surprise anyone to see Nick Nurse’s squad in the postseason in 2022? Nurse is one of the game’s premier tacticians, and this isn’t a team devoid of talent, even with the pair of marquee losses. Toronto’s defense should wreak absolute havoc on the perimeter with rookie Scottie Barnes joining Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, and Precious Achiuwa is likely to become a fan favorite as an undersized five. Perhaps this season will mark more of a retooling for the Raptors rather than an all-out rebuild.
18. Portland Trail Blazers
It’s hard to consider Portland a guaranteed playoff team even if Damian Lillard stays with the Blazers through 2021–22. This is an uninspiring supporting cast around the All-NBA point guard, with a lack of depth in the frontcourt pairing with no true costar (all due respect to C.J. McCollum) for Lillard. A slow start to the season could precipitate Lillard’s exit, even if he’s on the roster on opening night. A rebuild likely looms in the coming seasons, though considering Lillard’s age and contract, Portland could very well receive a mammoth haul to kick start its next era.
17. Indiana Pacers
The middle tier of the Eastern Conference is going to be absolutely packed next season, with Indiana likely sitting as another play-in club after a disastrous 2020–21 under now-dismissed coach Nate Bjorkgren. Indiana’s rotation is among the deepest in basketball, and even without a verified All-NBA piece, there’s plenty of talent on hand with Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis entering the year as potential All-Stars. Keep an eye on Chris Duarte early in the season. If the Oregon product pops as a rookie, Indiana could work its way to a top-six seed in the East.
16. Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte has deftly pivoted following the Kemba Walker era, building a young squad that should be one of the most exciting teams in basketball next season. And surprisingly enough, it’s the Hornets’ draft decisions in recent years that are fueling their current rise. LaMelo Ball should only improve as he looks to be the jewel of the 2020 draft class, and the frontcourt duo of P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges adds significant versatility and athleticism to the roster. A full season from Gordon Hayward would go a long way to Charlotte earning its first playoff berth since 2016.
15. Chicago Bulls
So what do we make of this Chicago squad after a serious offseason spending spree? The outline of a quality team is present, with Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan joining rising star Zach LaVine and 2021 trade-deadline acquisition Nikola Vučević. This big four of sorts makes sense on paper, with DeRozan’s improved playmaking and Ball’s improved shooting potentially leading to a top-10 offense. Even without any clear championship upside, the Bulls have made a worthwhile pivot over the last year. This should be a competitive team in 2021–22, giving LaVine further confidence in the franchise’s direction as a potential mega-extension looms.
14. New York Knicks
New York isn’t winning the title anytime soon with its current roster, but this should once again be a playoff team in 2021–22. Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker should add a sizable scoring boost in the backcourt, and we could see RJ Barrett grow into one of the league’s best young wings. Tom Thibodeau’s team will be ready to compete every night. They’re the league’s preeminent pain in the ass (take that as a compliment). New York is taking the responsible path back to relevance, looking to string together playoff appearances until the next superstar wants to head to the Mecca.
13. Boston Celtics
Boston now finds itself in a bit of NBA purgatory ahead of next season after missing out on the chase for Paul George, Anthony Davis and James Harden in recent years. Danny Ainge’s decision-making has left Boston with a solid roster for next year, one armed with two franchise anchors in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Brad Stevens made a shrewd move in acquiring Dennis Schröder for cheap this offseason, though such an addition is unlikely to vault the Celtics into the Eastern Conference elite. Even if Boston is more of a middling team this season, the future could be bright in a hurry with the right acquisition (hello, Bradley Beal) before 2022–23.
12. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Dončić’s brilliance gives Dallas a puncher's chance at the Finals every year, and we could see a run similar to Dwyane Wade in 2006 if things break right. Though I still need to see more from his supporting cast to seriously consider the Mavericks in the top tier of Western Conference squads. Kristaps Porzingis’s performance can wane by the week. Reggie Bullock isn’t exactly the most significant addition. Consider Dallas simply a playoff team at the moment, though the right midseason move and enough Dončić magic could erase that narrative rather quickly.
11. Philadelphia 76ers
The Ben Simmons situation isn’t quieting down anytime soon, and it’s hard to imagine the much-maligned point guard—if you can even classify him as such—starting the year in Philadelphia. The return for Simmons will likely shape the Sixers’s season. Landing Damian Lillard could create a true Big Three in the East with Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Brooklyn. And while a non-Lillard package could still benefit the Sixers long-term, anything less than a superstar acquisition will keep Philly in the tier of also-rans in the East. After failing to acquire James Harden before last year's trade deadline, Daryl Morey will need to get creative to keep pace with the top of the conference.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have all the ingredients to make the Finals, except for the whole Kawhi Leonard health situation. If only that was so simple. Leonard is unlikely to return until late next season after undergoing ACL surgery, and even if he does play in 2021–22, there’s no guarantee he can immediately return to his 2019 Finals form. A certain Sports Illustrated writer has been burned by the Clippers in each of the last two years, with a pair of Finals predictions gone awry following a bubble collapse and Leonard’s injury. Let’s start this year on a cautious note before handing Los Angeles the championship.
9. Golden State Warriors
There will be no shortage of intrigue in the Bay Area in 2021–22 after a two-year exile from the postseason. And if things break right, we could see this team back in the Finals conversation sooner than later. A healthy Klay Thompson is, of course, critical to Golden State’s hopes, and the Warriors hope to coax greater consistency out of Andrew Wiggins in his third year with Golden State. But ultimately, it’s the Warriors’ youngsters who will decide their season. If James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody are all shaky rotation players, another long season could await. But if even one of the three emerges as a real talent, Joe Lacob’s vision of the Warriors as Spurs 2.0 could become a reality.
8. Atlanta Hawks
Was Atlanta’s run to the Eastern Conference finals last season a relative fluke? Or was it a sign of things to come? There’s no easy answer as we approach 2021–22, though I’m inclined to think it was the latter. Trae Young is one of the best offensive guards in basketball, and the Hawks’s brain trust has done a brilliant job engineering a roster around their star. Atlanta sports one of the deepest rotations in the league, with Clint Capela, John Collins and De’Andre Hunter creating an elite frontcourt trio. A surprise run to the Finals from Nate McMillan’s squad is not out of the question whatsoever after last season’s breakthrough.
7. Denver Nuggets
Perhaps this is more of a projection of Denver’s squad in the postseason, though if Jamal Murray is healthy, this could very well be the Western Conference’s representative in the Finals. Nikola Jokić is an All-NBA talent with legitimate postseason chops. Michael Porter Jr. should continue to grow as a prolific scorer, and the offseason moves to retain Will Barton and sign Jeff Green should bring notable depth and scoring punch to Mike Malone’s rotation. Denver is a strong matchup against any non-Lakers team in the Western Conference. If the bracket breaks right, the Finals are definitely in play.
6. Miami Heat
Perhaps Miami won’t blow the doors off teams in the regular season, but is there anyone that wants to take on this team in the playoffs? Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker are two of the league’s most dogged defenders at their respective positions, and the playmaking on the floor among Lowry, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo should alleviate some shooting concerns. Duncan Robinson is back in the fold. Tyler Herro should benefit from less defensive attention. Brooklyn and Milwaukee still enter next year as the East favorites by a solid margin. Don’t tell that to Erik Spoelstra’s squad next summer.
5. Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul is back in the desert, and the Suns enter 2021–22 well within the top tier of championship contenders in the Western Conference. There’s no guarantee of a repeat run to the Finals next season—especially considering Paul’s injury history and age—though Phoenix fans should be encouraged by the team’s offseason moves thus far. Landry Shamet and Cam Payne are both quality backcourt options off the bench. JaVale McGee should provide some deterrence at the rim, filling a weak spot that was exploited time and again in the 2021 Finals. Monty Williams’s squad shouldn’t be counted out whatsoever after a surprise run through the Western Conference last year.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz shuffled off the Staples Center floor the last time we saw them in action, with a 39-point extended heater from Terance Mann sending Utah home after Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. Will Utah finally be able to get over the hump this year to reach its first Finals since 1998? Next season represents a great opportunity. There is no true juggernaut in the West, and the Jazz retained free agent Mike Conley in free agency with a three-year, $72 million deal. A healthy Conley could have swung the Western Conference playoffs last season. Utah has the depth and top-end talent to make a Finals run next year, even in a crowded Western Conference.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers may not be the best team in basketball next season, but they’re all but certain to be the most interesting. LeBron James will likely come off his extended offseason with plenty left in the tank, looking to prove that he’s still the game’s most dominant force in Year 19. And there’s plenty of intrigue outside of King James. Can Anthony Davis log a full healthy season? Can Carmelo Anthony stick in Frank Vogel’s rotation? Oh, and there’s a certain polarizing point guard in the mix seeking his first championship. The sheer talent on hand makes the Lakers the Western Conference favorites entering opening night, though James’s fourth season in Los Angeles carries its fair share of implosion potential.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Is there a way for this ranking not to seem disrespectful? Probably not. Milwaukee enters 2021–22 following a dominant close to the Finals, and this is effectively the same core as last season with Rodney Hood and Grayson Allen joining the roster for additional depth. Antetokounmpo isn’t one to settle after a small taste of success. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton seem to be near-perfect running mates. Don’t be shocked if Milwaukee cruises through the regular season before another run to the Finals in the summer of 2022.
1. Brooklyn Nets
Not to rain on Milwaukee's parade, but in a very plausible alternate universe—one where Kevin Durant wears smaller sneakers—we’re entering the 2021–22 season pondering the potential of a Nets dynasty. Durant has a strong case as the best player alive. We should see a better James Harden in his first full season in Brooklyn. Kyrie Irving is an elite point guard when healthy, and general manager Sean Marks has done an impressive job filling the margins of Brooklyn’s roster with quality contributors. Good health is never a guarantee, though from a talent standpoint, it’s hard to pick anyone but the Nets to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy next summer.
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