The NBA preseason is finally (as if this didn’t feel like the shortest offseason ever) upon us. That means it is time to pull out that debit card and subscribe to NBA League Pass, if you don’t already.
As a reminder, you can order League Pass as part of your cable package for your television, purchase it as an add-on to the NBA app on your smart phone or tablet, or buy it on the website and stream games wherever you take your computer. On the NBA[dot]com website, the current annual packages are Premium ($249 per year with exclusive features), League Pass ($199 per year–most popular), and Team Pass ($119 per year, one team). This year, I have decided to unveil my first annual League Pass rankings. The goal of this is to provide a guide as to which teams I believe will provide the best viewing experience.
Disclaimer: These rankings are purely based on entertainment value and viewing experience, not how good teams are. So, this isn’t me saying that I think your team is bad. Rather, this is my determination of whether your team makes for an enjoyable viewing experience.
With that being said, I present to you, the rankings for the 2020-21 NBA season.
30) Cleveland Cavaliers
If you want to get excited over Collin Sexton, be my guest. I am interested to see what second-year guard Darius Garland can become, but there’s not much else keeping me invested in this group. I hope Kevin Porter Jr can resolve his off-the-court issues, as those could hold back what has the makings of a promising NBA player.
Dylan Windler possesses some intrigue, as he missed his entire rookie season due to a leg injury. But, Cleveland spent its lottery pick on Isaac Okoro, a defensive mastermind with a lot of work to do to become an interesting player on the offensive side of the ball. Besides the progressions of Garland, Windler, and Porter Jr., and that my high school teammate Lamar Stevens is on a two-way with the team, there is not much marrying me to the Cavaliers when it comes to choosing games on League Pass.
29) Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder essentially gave up everything that was part of their present-day identity in order to set themselves up for the future. Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort, are entertaining pieces worth watching as they grow. Aleksej Pokusevski (seventeenth overall pick) is a project, but projects a ceiling higher than what Kristaps Porzingis has become. One might tune in on a month-to-month basis to see a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pick-and-roll with Al Horford (if Horford remains there the whole season) and to get a feel for what they have in their young role players (Ty Jerome, Theo Maledon, among them). But, the Thunder don’t offer not much else to get your heart rate going.
28) Detroit Pistons
No team in the NBA has had a more bizarre offseason. The Pistons signed two centers (overpaid one severely) and added Jerami Grant, but none of that made much sense as the team clearly needs to rebuild. I like the flyer they took on Josh Jackson, who has yet to find his footing in the NBA after being a lottery pick back in 2017. They traded away their dynamic shooting threat when they shipped Luke Kennard to Los Angeles, and then waived athletic, but raw guard Zhaire Smith upon acquiring him from Philadelphia.
There’s no reason for Blake Griffin to remain in Detroit for the entirety of what will be a dreadful season. But, hey, maybe they keep him since their theme is ‘things that make absolutely no sense during a rebuild’. The only reason I’ll be tuned in, besides the fact that I cover the NBA, is to keep track of rookies Killian Hayes (seventh overall) and Saddiq Bey (nineteenth overall) and second-year forward Sekou Doumbouya. Hayes provides some dynamic shot-creating and figures to have the ball in his hands quite often if and when Griffin departs. Bey, of course, is an excellent shooter fresh out of Villanova (where I, too, was a student) who will provide some spacing for the offense to operate.
27) Indiana Pacers
The Pacers added Cassius Stanley (54th overall pick). The primary feature of interest is that Victor Oladipo will finally be healthy and his fit within their mix of Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. TJ Warren is fresh off of a career year and Sabonis was an all-star. But, the Pacers are a team that is searching for a more modernized identity (more three-point shooting), and it’s unclear if their roster is built to play modern basketball. If Oladipo is healthy, and if he signs a deal to stay in Indiana and can focus on basketball, the Pacers’ ceiling is slightly higher. But, their floor remains just about the same. They’re vying for a playoff berth, but they’re not electrifying anyone.
26) Orlando Magic
The Magic added Cole Anthony (fifteenth overall pick) and Dwayne Bacon. But, any level of excitement that they have lied in the growth of Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. Bamba showed some improvement in his sophomore season, but not enough to move the team from a viewing experience standpoint. Isaac has star potential, but he will likely miss the whole season recovering from a torn ACL.
The Magic lack a star-level wing capable of creating his own shot. So, their half-court offense relies heavily upon Nikola Vucevic making reads out of the post. That is incredibly predictable basketball, and it is not a mesmerizing viewing experience for anyone. You may tune in every once in a while to see what Markelle Fultz’s jump shot looks like, or to check on Cole Anthony’s decision-making out of the pick-and-roll, though.
25) New York Knicks
The new management has already had a better start than the previous regime had tenure. Still, RJ Barrett is not a good shooter, and the Knicks still have three power forwards and two centers who are not lighting the world on fire from beyond the arc. The team is not built for Barrett to be maximized.
So, the intrigue lies in rookies Obi Toppin (eighth overall pick) and Immanuel Quickley (25th overall pick) and third-year forward Kevin Knox II. Toppin has the physical tools to be an exciting offensive player but a dreadful defensive player, while Quickley is a dead-eye shooter who is undersized for shooting guard and not enough of a facilitator to be a legitimate point guard. Knox is looking to grow from his horrific first two NBA seasons, and I’m still a believer in his potential. Seeing what those three can become will be enough for me to keep my eyes on the Knicks, but I’m not expecting anything pretty.
24) Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine is as explosive a scorer as there is in the NBA. The Bulls also return second-year guard Coby White, who had a promising end to his rookie season. They also added a raw, but prototypical modern NBA wing in Patrick Williams (fourth overall pick), as well as speedy and crafty guard Devon Dotson (undrafted). It’s also worth seeing whether Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. can finally figure out the NBA game.
Beyond that, the Bulls profile as a lottery-bound team with a number of average-to-below-average pieces crowding their rotation. LaVine and White are exciting enough to push them this high. You stay tuned in to watch Williams and Dotson develop so that you can polish your NBA intellectualism.
23) San Antonio Spurs
You don’t watch the Spurs to be wowed by exciting basketball. You watch them to get a taste of fundamentally-sound basketball. They make the extra pass, move around the basketball, and rotate on the defensive side–or they try to, at least. The glory days are over for the Spurs, and now DeRozan and Aldridge are keeping them from completely rebuilding.
You are there to watch Lonnie Walker IV, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, and Devin Vassell. Vassell was one of my favorite players in this year’s draft, finishing in the top five on my big board. He has the physical tools to be a superstar, even if his skill set has a ways to go. Nonetheless, his spot-up shooting is already there, and he shows traces of being able to create space for jumpers off the dribble. Those four names are not stars yet, but they profile as high-ceiling players. Tracking their growth makes for an enjoyable viewing experience.
22) Utah Jazz
It bears repeating that this ranking is not my way of saying whether your favorite team is good or bad. The Jazz are very good, but that doesn’t make them a must-watch basketball team. Elijah Hughes (39th overall pick) is an unknown worth checking in on to see what he becomes, but the Jazz expensed their first round pick on a back-to-the-basket center in Udoka Azubuike (27th overall). Azubuike, I might add, is already behind Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert on the depth chart. So, the Jazz didn’t do a whole heck of a lot on draft night, and adding Derrick Favors is far from a big splash.
A healthy Bojan Bogdanovic makes the Jazz’s ceiling and floor higher. But, the most interesting thing about them remains the nightly possibility that star guard Donovan Mitchell could explode for 50 points. Unless Rudy Gobert starts pulling the trigger from Damian Lillard range, there’s not much more compelling you to watch. The Jazz will be good, just not that fun for the casual NBA fan.
21) Toronto Raptors
Much like the Jazz, the Raptors are very good, just not the most compelling team to watch if given the choice of multiple games. The losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are significant, as Toronto no longer has a big that can stabilize a half-court offense with passing out of the pick-and-roll or high post. The pivot to Aron Baynes was excellent, but his versatility does not expand past the pick-and-pop, and he is a significant downgrade from Gasol.
The Raptors added Malachi Flynn (29th overall pick), who profiles as one of the 2020 draft’s best pick-and-roll point guards, but he’s stuck behind Lowry and VanVleet (who just re-signed on a massive extension) in Toronto’s guard depth. Chris Boucher and Terence Davis (whose availability is unknown as his criminal case remains in limbo) had impressive showings last season, but Toronto lost a significant chunk of its identity this offseason. Siakam will continue to develop after a breakout season in 2019-20, but he has much to prove after the stinker he put up in the 2020 playoffs.
Still, Kyle Lowry is Toronto’s best player, and he won’t be the best player on the court in any of their matchups against the five other contenders in the East. Again, the Raptors profile as a very good team. But, it doesn’t help their League Pass interest that one of the most fascinating storylines about them is that their home games will be played in Tampa, Florida in 2020-21.
20) Memphis Grizzlies
Desmond Bane (30th overall pick) and Xavier Tillman Sr. (35th overall pick) were two of the more darling picks in the 2020 draft. But, the Grizzlies still lack experience and their shooting prowess is not exactly potent or prolific. On top of that, the tail-end of the Western Conference playoff picture is better. Memphis’ ceiling is a bit lower than the play-in game they earned last season, but their floor is higher. Even with that less-than-inspiring summary, they managed to beat out three teams that figure to be in the playoff picture. Reigning Rookie of the Year Ja Morant and third-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. are that exciting.
19) Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets’ moves this offseason communicate one thing–owner Michael Jordan will not settle for a rebuild. They added Gordon Hayward on an overpay in free agency and didn’t subtract anything to get him. Hayward will bring veteran mentorship to Charlotte’s young core and provide primary shot-creation on the wing. Devonte’ Graham had an incredible sophomore campaign and forward PJ Washington showed flashes of a very high ceiling.
With the additions of LaMelo Ball (third overall pick) and dynamic scorer Grant Riller (56th overall pick), the Hornets figure to be a potent team in transition. The uber-athletic Miles Bridges along with the shooting provided by Hayward and Graham should bring out the best of Ball’s full-court vision. The Hornets may not be much more than a play-in team, but they’re certainly worth watching on a week-to-week basis.
18) Houston Rockets
This position is particularly excellent for the Rockets (for me, really) because it is appropriate regardless of what happens with James Harden. If Harden is still in Houston, he’s going to do what we know James Harden does–and predictable isn’t necessarily enjoyable for the viewer. If he’s not there, the Rockets have still made enough changes to be interesting.
Rafael Stone’s first big splash in command was trading Russell Westbrook for John Wall. He then signed center DeMarcus Cousins, who is looking to recover his career after suffering a barrage of leg injuries that stunted his career over the last three seasons. Wall showed signs of life in last night’s preseason victory over the Bulls, showing no rust despite not playing in nearly two years. Cousins also performed well last night.
Of course, preseason is not much of an indicator of anything. But, those two showed a lot of promise in their returns from injury. With or without Harden, those two, coupled with the addition of Christian Wood following his breakout season in Detroit, is enough to maintain interest in the Rockets.
17) New Orleans Pelicans
When thinking of the Pelicans, a lot of people think of Zion Williamson, by himself. I think of Zion Williamson and the island of misfit toys around him. The Pelicans needed to clone JJ Redick in various sizes (I guess that wouldn’t be cloning) to make the perfect fit next to Zion. Instead, David Griffin opted to trade for non-shooting center Steven Adams and then didn’t add any semblance of credible shooting to support Redick’s workload or create spacing for his young star.
Griffin also traded away his primary play-making guard in Jrue Holiday. Kira Lewis (thirteenth overall pick) is a crafty guard, but he’s too young for the role he will need to fill with Holiday gone. Obviously, Eric Bledsoe will garner significant minutes, but he cannot and should not shoot the basketball. Griffin did re-sign budding star Brandon Ingram, but I would like to see some season-to-season consistency out of the forward before I am convicted in saying that he will smoothen over the jagged edges on this roster.
Stan Van Gundy has a star to build around, but he and his management team assembled a roster that makes very little sense. If Zion can stay healthy, the Pelicans’ ceiling is higher than it was last season. I just don’t believe that the pieces on the roster are conducive to getting the most of the best players. That is a recipe for an unpleasant viewing experience.
16) Sacramento Kings
Here’s to hoping forward Marvin Bagley III can find some health this season. He still has a star-level ceiling. The Kings may have finally nailed a draft pick as well, nabbing Tyrese Haliburton with the twelfth overall pick. Haliburton’s basketball IQ is amongst the highest in the draft. His length, athleticism, and vision also make him a versatile prospect that can be trusted at a multitude of positions.
Although Sacramento let Harry Giles III and Bogdan Bogdanovic leave for nothing, they have the physical traits (Bagley and Haliburton) needed to incite transition opportunities. The Kings also have one of the fastest point guards in the league in De’Aaron Fox. With Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Nemanja Bjelica, and Glenn Robinson III on the wings, Sacramento also has the shooting needed to space the floor in both transition and half-court play. The Kings may not be good, per se. But, they’ll be fast, more experienced, more skilled, and damn pesky.
15) Atlanta Hawks
Travis Schlenk added the requisite tier-3 (Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic) and tier-4 (Rajon Rondo) players needed to catapult the Hawks into the playoff picture. The Hawks are surely better, but their most interesting addition is arguably rookie center Onyeka Okongwu (sixth overall pick). Gallinari, Bogdanovic, and Rondo are good players, but they aren’t going to add much of a ‘wow’ factor to the Hawks’ outlook. Rather, Atlanta’s signings stabilize their youth-veteran mix.
At the end of the day, you’re mainly watching the Hawks to see Trae Young shoot and exploit defenses with his passing, as well as to monitor the progressions of promising second-year wings Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. That’s fine, and it can certainly make for an enjoyable viewing experience. But, even if their floor is higher, their ceiling still isn’t all that fascinating.
14) Minnesota Timberwolves
I understand that I am in ‘hot take’ territory. Rest assured I do not care. The Timberwolves will have a full season to groom the pairing of stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. They also have an interesting unknown in second-year wing Jarrett Culver. Gersson Rosas added explosive guard Anthony Edwards (first overall pick) to the mix, and could have a ‘Big Three’ all under the ages of 26 if Edwards pans out.
The Wolves traded for Ricky Rubio, who began his career in Minnesota, to bolster their guard depth and mentor their youngsters. Rosas also drafted Leandro Bolmaro (23rd overall pick) and Jaden McDaniels (28th overall pick), who is one of my favorite players in this draft. The Timberwolves, in almost complete certainty, will not be good this year. But, there is enough high-ceiling talent mixed with established-star intrigue to make them an enchanting watch. If I had to guess, I’ll probably be watching the Timberwolves (and maybe clawing my eyes out) on a weekly basis.
13) Washington Wizards
I really liked the Westbrook trade for both Westbrook, himself, and for Washington. Bradley Beal is the unquestioned best player on the team, but Westbrook was playing some of the best ball of his career prior to the 2019-20 season being suspended. Adding Westbrook to the mix gives the young Wizards an excellent teammate to learn from and an explosive play-maker in the open court.
Having added Deni Avdija (who will become a very good shooter, mark my words) to a mix of capable shooters that includes Davis Bertans, the Wizards can get back to running spread pick-and-rolls with an explosive point guard–and that’s something Westbrook hasn’t been able to do in quite some time. This Wizards team may not be as good as the six teams contending in the East, but they are much improved. The addition of Russell Westbrook will make an already-explosive offense more potent. I’ll be watching at least once per week.
12) Boston Celtics
Simply put, there isn’t that much change from last season’s Celtics to this season’s group. They added Aaron Nesmith (fourteenth overall pick) and Payton Pritchard (26th overall pick), and they bolstered their big depth with their signing of Tristan Thompson. But, they lost a significant piece of their wing depth in Gordon Hayward. The assumption has to be that Kemba Walker will be able to maintain health, and that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum continue to take steps forward. You will watch them because they’re a marquee team and they play an enjoyable brand of basketball. But, they’re not different enough from last year’s group to elicit top-10 status in viewing experience.
11) Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are returning a rested superstar to their lineup in Stephen Curry. Curry, by himself, is as exciting a player as there is in the league. His endless motor on the offensive side of the court makes viewers’ eyes bounce like balls in a pinball machine. The Warriors also took my favorite prospect in the draft, James Wiseman, with the second overall pick. Wiseman’s massive body should serve as an excellent screen for Curry to use to get himself open. I will be viewing them at least once per week (assuming Curry remains healthy and doesn’t sit for tanking purposes) solely out of curiosity as to whether Curry can carry the offense almost by himself and to observe Wiseman’s progression.
10) Denver Nuggets
We witnessed one of the most incredible scoring rampages in playoff history in 2020, and it came courtesy of Jamal Murray. Murray should continue to get better, and Jokic is as dynamic a big man as there is in the NBA. The allure of the Nuggets lies with Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol. Porter Jr. flashed superstar upside in the bubble, and has a very real chance of rapidly reaching that status with the benefit of an end-of-lottery level contract. Speaking of the bubble, Bol Bol flexed that unicorn potential that was so attractive in college before he broke his foot. I’ll be tuning in for the Jokic passes out of the post and Murray pick-and-roll scoring, and staying for Porter Jr and Bol.
9) Miami HEAT
A lot of people think Miami’s cinderella story in the bubble was a fluke. I do not have my own verdict on that. I expect some natural decline from the aging Jimmy Butler, but I also expect growth from star big man Bam Adebayo and standout guard Tyler Herro. If Duncan Robinson can sustain that shooting prowess that spaced out Miami’s offense last season, the Heat could very well be real. That ‘realness’, by the way, was a very high-level brand of basketball that made for a pleasant viewing experience last season. I’ll be watching to figure out whether the HEAT’s identity from last season is real or not. If it is, it will look like synchronous and perfectly-timed defensive rotations, polished individual defensive habits, consistent dribble penetration, and relentless passing.
8) Portland Trail Blazers
This is going to be comically brief, but accurate. The Blazers still have Damian Lillard, and they added wing and big depth. If you don’t watch the Blazers at least twice per week, seek help.
7) Phoenix Suns
The Suns are in excellent position to have their best season in almost a decade. They acquired Chris Paul from the Thunder, and added shooting depth in Jae Crowder and E’Twaun Moore. With Devin Booker coming off of a breakout campaign and emerging as a superstar, the Suns’ backcourt figures to be incredibly potent. I’m just now mentioning the growing games of wings Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and Deandre Ayton. With the Booker-Paul back-court, the Suns have a new swagger and a new offensive dynamic. With Bridges, Johnson, and Ayton in that starting lineup, too, the Suns have a core well-constructed to make the playoffs for the first time in years. You should be watching them at least twice per week.
6) Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are looking to get their respect back after a humiliating loss to the Denver Nuggets after being up 3-1 against them in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Any time Kawhi Leonard steps on the court, the possibility of something amazing looms. That, alone, makes for drama worth watching. Couple that with what figures to be a new wrinkle to their style of play with Tyronn Lue as the new head coach, and you have a must-watch ball club.
5) Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers are a very different team than the one that looked lost in the bubble. They subtracted their horrendous-fitting power forward when they shipped Al Horford to Oklahoma City. They’ve bolstered their shooting depth with the additions of Danny Green, Seth Curry, Isaiah Joe, and Ryan Broekhoff. The roster around Philly’s two stars fits them significantly better. With new regimes running the front office and coaching the group, the Sixers need to be on your screen whenever they play. Oh, and they’re also rumored to be the favorites to acquire perennial MVP-candidate James Harden.
4) Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, for now, and that means they’re must-watch television. The addition of Jrue Holiday is huge, as it makes them better-equipped to close out playoff games when pace slows down. Nonetheless, Antetokounmpo should’ve felt humilitated by the night-before-a-colonoscopy his team laid against the HEAT in the playoffs, and I expect him to be motivated to silence the critics. We joke about it, but you really should fear the deer.
3) Brooklyn Nets
*Clears throat* Kevin Durant. *Drops mic, walks off stage*
In all seriousness, Kevin Durant carries the entire intrigue. If he is 90 percent of what he was prior to rupturing his achilles, he and Kyrie Irving together will make for one of the most interesting dynamics in all of basketball. It will be Broadway in Brooklyn.
2) Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic is the game’s most exciting young star. He consistently put up prime LeBron numbers in his second year, and his ceiling is in another galaxy. The Mavericks added shooting to what was already an unbelievably powerful offense last year, and that should create additional spacing for one of the best play-makers in the game. The addition of Josh Richardson also helps cover up some of Doncic’s defensive shortcomings. Regardless of his defense, the kid is a show every single night, and you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t watch.
1) Los Angeles Lakers
The defending champs are going to get everyone’s best shots every single night. If they want to maintain that privilege of sleeping in their own beds throughout the playoffs, they will need to match that level of play. They added Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol, replaced Danny Green with Wesley Matthews, and traded for Dennis Schroder. The Lakers got significantly better even coming off of a championship. Beyond that, no one knows how long the greatest player in basketball history will be able to sustain his elite play. Soak it in before father time inevitably strikes.