A new season is nearly here, and that means a new edition of The Sporting News’ NBA Power Rankings has arrived.
Some of the top title contenders can be found at the top of our list, but even championship hopefuls such as the Bucks, Nets and Lakers face big questions entering the 2021-22 campaign. They aren’t alone, though, as The Sporting News staff has presented a big question for every NBA team.
RANKING ALL 30 STARTERS: PG | SG | SF | PF | C
Important note: These rankings are not projections for how the final standings will look. There will be plenty of movement throughout the season, so how about we just ease into things before everyone freaks out? Wait, you’re not reading this disclaimer? OK, whatever.
Let’s dive into the rankings . . .
NBA Power Rankings 2021
1. Brooklyn Nets
Are the Nets title favorites even without Kyrie Irving?
Nets general manager Sean Marks announced before the season that Kyrie Irving won’t play or practice with the team until he’s “eligible to be a full participant.” There’s no doubt that the Nets are a better team with Irving on the court, but it speaks to how deep this roster is and how special both James Harden and Kevin Durant are that they could still win it all with only two of their three stars in uniform. — Scott Rafferty
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Will Giannis Antetokounmpo sustain his Finals dominance?
Everything seemed to click for Antetokounmpo during Milwaukee’s championship run last season. He played with a lot more control, flourished as a screener and looked comfortable getting to his spots out of the post. If everything we saw in the second round, when he went toe-to-toe with Durant, and the NBA Finals, when he had one of the greatest series we’ve ever seen, carries over into this season, the Bucks may very well go back-to-back. — Scott Rafferty
3. Los Angeles Lakers
How will LeBron James and Russell Westbrook fit together?
Age seems to be the popular topic for the Lakers, but I’m more curious about how two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA will mesh alongside each other. When you put the league’s last two assist champions in the same starting lineup, who takes primary playmaking duties? It never hurts to have multiple ball handlers, but can James and Westbrook make it work? My gut says they’re too talented for the tandem to fail, but it may take time. — Kyle Irving
4. Phoenix Suns
Can Deandre Ayton build off a terrific playoff run?
Ayton was no match for Antetokounmpo in the 2021 NBA Finals — really, who is? — but he finished the postseason with averages of 15.8 points (65.8 percent shooting), 11.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. If he can make another jump in Year 4, the Suns may emerge as the favorites over the Lakers in the Western Conference. — Jordan Greer
5. Utah Jazz
Are the Jazz better built for playoff success this season?
After surging to the league’s best record in 2020-21, the Jazz fizzled in the postseason, losing four straight games against the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals. In response, the team has added the likes of Rudy Gay, Eric Paschall and Hassan Whiteside for more frontcourt versatility, but will they be enough to support the All-Star trio of Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell once it’s playoff time again? — Gilbert McGregor
6. Atlanta Hawks
Was last season’s run for real?
The Hawks entered last season’s All-Star break with a 16-20 record and a slightly positive (0.3) net rating. After All-Star weekend? 25-11 with a 4.3 net rating. Health played a big role in Atlanta turning its season around, but that wasn’t the only factor. With a bigger target on their backs, it’s going to be fascinating to see how these young Hawks build on their run to the Eastern Conference finals. — Scott Rafferty
7. Denver Nuggets
Who will fill Jamal Murray’s starting slot?
The Nuggets will be without Murray to start the season as he recovers from an ACL injury that he suffered in April. While reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is more than capable of orchestrating the offense in the meantime, they still have to fill a starting backcourt spot. Will Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo or Austin Rivers fit that bill? Will Denver look to rookie guard Bones Hyland if he continues his level of play from NBA Summer League and preseason? — Kyle Irving
8. Miami Heat
Will Tyler Herro break out?
As long as they stay healthy, the Heat should have one of the better starting lineups in the league this season in Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker and Bam Adebayo. It’s their second unit that’s more of a question mark. It’s possible the Heat will address their depth problem at some point before the playoffs, but Herro having a Most Improved Player-caliber season could give them the punch they need off the bench. — Scott Rafferty
OFFSEASON GRADES: East | West
9. Dallas Mavericks
Can Kristaps Porzingis become the second star the Mavs need?
Is there a player in the league that can change his team’s ceiling more than Porzingis? Through his first two seasons in Dallas, the big man has often been utilized as a spot-up shooter rather than a true secondary scoring option next to Luka Doncic. The hope is that new head coach Jason Kidd can bring out the best in him. If he can rediscover the form that made him an All-Star in New York, Porzingis can help turn the Mavs into a genuine contender. — Benyam Kidane
10. Golden State Warriors
What will Klay Thompson look like?
A lot has changed since we last saw Thompson on a basketball court. He should still be an effective player on the strength of his shooting alone, but it’s easy to forget that he was one of the best perimeter defenders in the league prior to tearing his ACL and Achilles. How he looks coming off two major injuries could determine how far the Warriors ultimately go this season. — Scott Rafferty
11. Boston Celtics
What will the Celtics’ starting lineup look like?
Celtics coach Ime Udoka has plenty of decisions to make with a new-look roster. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will both start, but the other three spots have yet to be determined. Some combination of Marcus Smart, Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, Al Horford and Robert Williams are likely to round out the starting five, but it depends on if the Celtics will play big or small. It’s something to monitor as the season approaches. — Kyle Irving
12. Portland Trail Blazers
Can Chauncey Billups get the Trail Blazers to defend?
Offense wasn’t a problem for the Blazers last season. Defense was. In giving up 115.3 points per 100 possessions, Portland ranked 29th out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency. The addition of Larry Nance Jr. should help, but a lot of it will come down to Billups getting the Trail Blazers to defend harder and with more purpose than they did last season. — Scott Rafferty
13. Philadelphia 76ers
How much longer will Ben Simmons be a member of the 76ers?
It’s no secret that Simmons is looking for a fresh start — and that the 76ers are looking to get a star in the mold of Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard in return if they do move him. Simmons’ fit with Joel Embiid might not be perfect, but the two of them powered the 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference last season. How this shakes out will not only shape Philadelphia’s season, but it could also shake up the league as a whole. — Scott Rafferty
14. Los Angeles Clippers
Can the Clippers stay competitive without Kawhi Leonard?
There’s no timetable for the return of Leonard, who underwent knee surgery in the offseason. As the Clippers look to contend in the Western Conference, will the core of Paul George, Reggie Jackson, Eric Bledsoe, Serge Ibaka, Marcus Morris and Terance Mann be enough to keep them in the hunt? We saw Paul George take his game to another level in the playoffs without Leonard, but can he do it again consistently for at least the first half of the season? — Benyam Kidane
15. New York Knicks
Will Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier take the Knicks to the next level?
The Knicks reinvigorated their fan base with last year’s run to the playoffs, but they didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Hawks. In an attempt to solve that problem, they’ve brought in Walker and Fournier, who can each create their own offense, but will they be enough for New York to find playoff success? — Gilbert McGregor
16. Chicago Bulls
How will the Bulls’ new core mesh?
Chicago is going all-in on contending in the East, following up last season’s trade deadline acquisition of Nikola Vucevic with the free agency additions of Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan to complement Zach LaVine. Those are four fine players, for sure, but they’re also players who do what they do best with the ball in their hands, meaning there is plenty to be sorted out this season. — Gilbert McGregor
17. Indiana Pacers
Will the injury bug bite the Pacers again?
Rick Carlisle should be a coaching upgrade over Nate Bjorkgren, who was fired after a disastrous 2021-22 season, but Carlisle’s presence won’t matter if he doesn’t have the full roster at his disposal. T.J. Warren still doesn’t have a timetable for his return, and Caris LeVert will miss at least the first four games of the regular season. Certainly not ideal. — Jordan Greer
18. Memphis Grizzlies
Can Ja Morant make the leap into stardom?
An early ankle injury derailed Morant’s sophomore season, but he ended it on a high by leading the Grizzlies to the No. 8 seed and a first-round matchup with the Jazz. He lit up Utah to the tune of 30.2 points and 8.2 assists per game. He’s made it clear where he sees himself in the point guard hierarchy entering his third season, and he is determined to establish himself as a star. Is this the season he breaks through? — Scott Rafferty
19. Toronto Raptors
Can the Raptors generate enough offense?
This Raptors team has the potential to be special defensively, but they could run into some issues on the other end. The Raptors finished 16th in offensive efficiency last season and saw Lowry leave them in the offseason. While Goran Dragic should help, they’re counting mostly on the continued improvement of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to drive their offense. Will it be enough? — Scott Rafferty
20. Washington Wizards
Will Bradley Beal remain happy?
The Wizards were one of the more active teams in the offseason, moving Westbrook and surrounding Beal with a more well-balanced team. The question is, have the Wizards done enough to keep Beal happy? The three-time All-Star could enter free agency following this season, as he has a player option in his contract for 2022-23. For that reason, a lot of teams will be interested to see how this season plays out in Washington. — Scott Rafferty
21. Charlotte Hornets
Are the Hornets a playoff team or play-in team?
A season ago, the Hornets exceeded expectations and cracked the play-in tournament. Now, with Gordon Hayward back to full strength and a year of experience under LaMelo Ball’s belt, just how good can this team be? The Hornets have plenty of talent, but the Eastern Conference only got tougher in the offseason. They have their work cut out for them if they’re going to be a playoff team. — Kyle Irving
22. Minnesota Timberwolves
Do the Timberwolves have a winning trio?
We only saw Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell share the court for 24 games last season. The results were encouraging — the Timberwolves scored at a rate of 120.9 points per 100 possessions with the three of them in the lineup — but Minnesota is going to need them to be firing on all cylinders to work their way back up the Western Conference standings. — Scott Rafferty
23. New Orleans Pelicans
Can Zion Williamson stay healthy?
Not off to a great start. Williamson appeared in 61 of a possible 72 games last season, but the Pelicans announced that he will miss at least the first few games of the 2021-22 campaign as he continues to recover from offseason foot surgery. The Pelicans will need him to be at full strength sooner rather than later to have any chance of making the playoffs in the crowded Western Conference. — Scott Rafferty
24. Sacramento Kings
Will the Kings trade Buddy Hield?
The Kings were reportedly deep into trade discussion with the Lakers before Los Angeles ultimately decided to acquire Westbrook. Sacramento will want De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell to play big minutes, so Hield, who has shot 40.6 percent from 3-point range in his career, could be a popular target around the trade deadline. — Jordan Greer
25. Cleveland Cavaliers
What is the deal with the Cavs’ frontcourt?
This offseason, Cleveland invested in its future by re-signing center Jarrett Allen to a five-year, $100 million contract and using the third pick in the 2021 NBA Draft to take do-it-all 7-footer Evan Mobley. While Allen and Mobley are different enough to make it work, things get confusing when you consider the Cavs also acquired Lauri Markkanen in a sign-and-trade deal (four years, $67 million) and still owe Kevin Love around $60 million over the next two seasons. How do you delegate time between three big men making starter money and a Rookie of the Year candidate? — Gilbert McGregor
26. San Antonio Spurs
Is this the end of the Gregg Popovich era?
After tying the NBA record of 22 consecutive playoff appearances, the Spurs have found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture in back-to-back seasons. Given that San Antonio doesn’t possess much star potential on its current roster, it’s hard to imagine Popovich sticking around to coach a mediocre team as he ages into his mid-70s. The Spurs are reportedly already preparing for the possibility that Popovich will retire after the 2021-22 or 2022-23 season. — Jordan Greer
27. Detroit Pistons
Can Killian Hayes get back on track?
Hayes struggled in his rookie season. Not only was he limited to 26 games, but he also committed 3.2 turnovers per game while shooting 35.3 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from 3-point range. This is Cade Cunningham’s team now, but Hayes reminding everyone why he was the No. 7 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft would help accelerate Detroit’s rebuild. — Scott Rafferty
28. Houston Rockets
Will Jalen Green be among the league leaders in scoring?
Green showcased his scoring package during his brief NBA Summer League run, averaging 20.3 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting. Sure, it was a small sample size, and he wasn’t exactly facing prime Gary Payton out there. Still, someone has to put up points for this team, and the Rockets are going to let him play through any first-year struggles. — Jordan Greer
29. Oklahoma City Thunder
What do the Thunder have in Josh Giddey?
The Thunder took a big swing by taking the 19-year-old Aussie with the No. 6 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, adding a gifted playmaker to a backcourt featuring one of the league’s most fascinating rising stars in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Giddey has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone, and his rookie season could provide a glimpse of the future for the organization. — Benyam Kidane
30. Orlando Magic
What exactly is the Magic’s guard rotation?
The Magic have embraced their rebuild, bringing in a ton of young talent, especially in the backcourt with No. 5 pick Jalen Suggs joining Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton. Expect to see first-year head coach Jamahl Mosley experiment with positionless lineups and deploy some intriguing three-guard units. — Benyam Kidane
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